Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Melvin Van Peebles’s edgy, angsty, romantic first feature could never have been made in America. Unable to break into segregated Hollywood, Van Peebles decamped to France, taught himself the language, and wrote a number of books in French, one of which, La permission, would become the stylistically innovative The Story of a Three Day Pass. Turner (Harry Baird), an African American soldier stationed in France, is granted a promotion and a three-day leave from base by his casually racist commanding officer and heads to Paris, where he finds whirlwind romance with a white woman (Nicole Berger)—but what happens to their love when his furlough is over? Channeling the brash exuberance of the French New Wave, Van Peebles creates an exploration of the psychology of an interracial relationship as well as a commentary on France’s contradictory attitudes about race that is playful, sarcastic, and stingingly subversive by turns, and that laid the foundation for the scorched-earth cinematic revolution he would let loose just a few years later.
Melvin Van Peebles’s only foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Watermelon Man is one of the most audacious, radically conceived works to be financed by a major American studio in the 1970s. Comedian Godfrey Cambridge delivers a virtuoso performance (initially in whiteface) as Jeff Gerber, a loudmouthed, bigoted white insurance salesman whose sitcomlike suburban existence is jarringly upended when he wakes up to discover, in a wild spin on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, that he has become a Black man. What ensues is a ferocious satire of society’s racist double standards that gradually transforms into an empowering portrait of awakening Black consciousness, executed with a mix of acerbic irreverence and deadly serious political commentary by a relentlessly subversive Van Peebles.
A landmark of Black and American independent cinema that would send shock waves through the culture, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was Melvin Van Peebles’s second feature film, after he walked away from a contract with Columbia in order to make his next film on his own terms. Acting as producer, director, writer, composer, editor, and star, Van Peebles created the prototype for what Hollywood would eventually co-opt and make into the blaxploitation hero: a taciturn, perpetually blank-faced performer in a sex show, who, when he’s pushed too far by a pair of racist cops looking to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, goes on the run through a lawless underground of bikers, revolutionaries, sex workers, and hippies in a kill-or-be-killed quest for liberation from white oppression. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s incendiary politics are matched by Van Peebles’s revolutionary style, in which jagged jump cuts, kaleidoscopic superimpositions, and psychedelic sound design come together in a sustained howl of rage and defiance.
Melvin Van Peebles’s film version of his own Tony Award–nominated Broadway musical is a bold blend of theater and nervy, New Wave–inflected cinematic invention. A cast of Black stage and screen luminaries including Esther Rolle, Mabel King, and Avon Long stars in this charmingly offbeat, fablelike fantasy in which a pair of mischief-making devil-bats dispatched by Satan assume human form in order to wreak havoc on a Saturday-night house party in Harlem—only to find their diabolical plan thwarted by their hosts’ infectious generosity of spirit. Staged with ebullience, the original blues- and gospel-infused songs by Van Peebles burst forth in a life-affirming celebration of Black joy, tenderness, resilience, and strength.
Details by Film
The Story of a Three Day Pass
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Don't Play Us Cheap
- Introduction by director Melvin Van Peebles from 2004
- Introduction by director Melvin Van Peebles from 1997
- Introduction from by director Melvin Van Peebles from 1997
- Audio commentary from 1997 by director Melvin Van Peebles
- Baadasssss!, a 2003 fictional feature film based on director Melvin Van Peebles’s diaries from the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, directed by and starring his son Mario Van Peebles
- Audio commentary from 2003 featuring director and star Mario Van Peebles with his father Melvin Van Peebles for Baadasssss!
- The Story Behind "Baadasssss!": The Birth of Black Cinema, a 2004 featurette on the making of Baadasssss!
- Introduction by director Melvin Van Peebles from 1997
- A 64-page book featuring writing on the films, including an introduction by film scholar Racquel Gates
- Melvin Van Peebles: The Real Deal, a 2002 interview with the director on the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
- New conversation between producer and Black Filmmaker Foundation founder Warrington Hudlin and filmmaker and music historian Nelson George
- Interview from 1968 with Melvin Van Peebles from the television program Black Journal
- Episode of the French television program Pour le plaisir from 1968, featuring on-set interviews with Mario Van Peebles and actors Harry Baird and Nicole Berger
- Three short films by Van Peebles: Sunlight (1957), Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957), and Les cinq cent balles (1961)
- How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a feature-length 2005 documentary by Joe Angio on Van Peebles' life and career
- New conversation between Melvin Van Peebles and film critic Elvis Mitchell
- Interview from 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles on Detroit Tubeworks
- Episode of Black Journal from 1971 featuring Melvin Van Peebles and critics Clayton Riley, Francis Ward, and A. Peter Bailey
- New conversation between scholars Gerald R. Butters Jr., Novotony Lawrence, and Amy Abugo Ongiri
- Excerpts from a 2004 interview with Melvin Van Peebles for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program
- Episode of Black Journal from 1972 featuring an interview with Melvin Van Peebles and musical performances by the film's cast