Unique in the history of cinema, Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! is a fictional account of the labors his father, Melvin Van Peebles, undertook to make another movie—Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 independent that blazed a path for a half-dozen years of blaxploitation. Like Melvin, Mario stars. He plays his father, a cigar-smoking, chopper-riding, bandanna-wearing megalomaniac, as well as his father playing the role of Sweetback. And like Sweetback, Baadasssss! is a psychodrama of self-actualization—the Horatio Alger version of Van Peebles’s militant nationalist tract.
Sweetback was unlike any movie ever produced in America. The elder Van Peebles’s obstructions (as Lars von Trier might put it; see Tracking Shots), included a lack of money, a shortage of film stock, loss of the director’s eyesight, and the arrest of cast and crew—and that’s before Van Peebles had to solve the problems of distribution and exhibition. There had never been a movie in which a black man killed a white cop and lived, nor a movie so steeped in images of underclass degradation. In a Times think piece, Clayton Riley called Sweetback a “terrifying vision [that] Black people alone will really understand.” That claim will not be made for Baadasssss! The movie’s tone is good-naturedly didactic, locating Sweetback in the history of Hollywood (and American) racial imagery. It’s also accurate enough as history to provide a potent reminder that black independent cinema did not end with Oscar Micheaux or begin with Spike Lee.
Appropriately self-reflexive, Mario alternates between plunging into the dynamic, slapdash Sweetback style and seeking distance in direct-address faux documentary. (He even inscribes himself as a little boy with a majestic ‘fro, hanging around the Sweetback set, as indeed he did.) No less than Mario’s Posse and Panther, hectic examples of media mythmaking both, Baadasssss! vibrates with crazy energy and cartoon-like perfs. It’s packed with Hollywood wiseguys, self-promoting hotties, craven agents, hippie stoners, porn purveyors, ghetto hotheads, and miscellaneous white weirdos.
Baadasssss! doesn’t glamorize the elder Van Peebles and frequently alludes to his failures as a father—but however mean, strict, and self-absorbed Mario’s Melvin appears, this movie is the ultimate filial gift. The son bears witness to his father’s struggle and turns it into heroic legend.