Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! re-creates the 19-day shoot of his father Melvin’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. While times have changed since the Black Panther Party helped Sweetback gain an audience, Hollywood is much the same for black directors as it was for Van Peebles père.
Mario: I had a dinner a couple of years ago at my house. I called up John Singleton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, F. Gary Gray, Reginald Hudlin, all the directors du jour who could make it. And we talked till four in the morning. At a certain point, I said, Look around. Most of us knew our fathers, went to college, very few of us were in a gang—maybe one or two of us might want to front a little bit—but we don’t get to make movies about folks like us. We’re being told that the audience is in sneakers and baggy pants. We were sort of being told that we had to direct films about the dominant culture—which is great—or if we wanted to make films with folks of color, they had to pretty much be hip-hop comedies or shoot-’em-ups.
As I sent the script out, the kind of notes I got back were: “Can you depoliticize it a little bit?” “Can you make it more for a white or black audience?” “Can you make it more hip-hop-comedy-esque, put some rappers in there?” “Can you make Melvin more likable?” And I felt that with this film, those weren’t notes that I could contain. So I got turned down by every studio, and I had to sort of self-finance with the help of Jerry Offsay and Michael Mann.
Melvin: I saw it finished for the first time in Toronto, and I was like, “Oh man, I’m there.” That was us, that was the time. He used the journal I kept, and I saw how well he depicted the artistic process—that was exactly what it was like—but it was never in the book.
Mario: I had all the pictures. I had the clothes. I had grown up with my subject and I had his permission. The one thing he said was, “Don’t make me too damn nice.”
Melvin: And as I saw it, I found the guy brilliant, intelligent, a very nice person. Some other people may not, but I found him very nice [wicked Melvin smile].
Mario: What Melvin did was what the Panthers were talking about after the deaths of Malcolm, King, Medgar Evers, and JFK—empowering the people, not just the leaders.
Melvin: Why I did Sweetback had nothing to do with the movement. It had to do with a profound disenchantment [with movies]. I started in 1957. It took me that long to get into position to do the movies I really wanted to do. However, there was a coincidence that the movement happened then.
Mario: What the Panthers liked about Sweetback was that [it] made being a revolutionary hip. And they said later that some of the other films made being a cop or working for the man hip, and sometimes even made being a drug dealer hip, which they felt was more counter-revolutionary. The Panthers were imperfect, but they were folks who went from a “me” mentality to a “we” mentality and Sweetback has that arc.
Melvin: The status quo is not in the habit of changing itself.
Mario: Baadasssss! is a real interesting case of the chicken and the egg. I was in his movie playing Sweetback [played by Melvin] as a kid; now I’m playing him as an adult, someone else is playing me as a kid, and Melvin’s grandson is the angel.