Far from fading quietly into the lifetime-achievement mists, Melvin Van Peebles has lately come to be recognized as the very essence of cool. Recent years have seen him showered with festival awards, sampled on Quasimoto tracks, and evoked by son Mario in the docudrama Baadasssss!—in each case lending far more in hipness-by-association than he’s received. While Baadasssss! focused on the landmark production of 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Joe Angio’s new documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)—screening at Film Forum with Baadasssss! and four of the senior Van Peebles’s features—takes a broader view of a remarkable life.
Glossing over an air force tour in Korea and a stint running cable cars in San Francisco, How to Eat follows Van Peebles to Europe, where he cranked out five French-language novels, one of which became his feature debut, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), a fragmented interracial (and multilingual) romance shot in nouvelle vague style. While the independently made Sweetback is justly remembered as Van Peebles’s definitive work, it’s the 1970 Watermelon Man, a studio comedy about a bigoted insurance salesman who wakes up one morning as a black man, that epitomizes the Van Peebles strategy of outwardly embracing stereotypes only to subvert them from within. The director recounts his difficulties convincing the studio to accept a black lead actor (Godfrey Cambridge, who spends the first 20 minutes in whiteface), and wryly recalls “forgetting” to shoot the obligatory “happy” ending—in which the salesman turns white again.
Happily, How to Eat ventures well beyond MVP’s cinematic output, recapping his credentials as a rap-music forefather and his groundbreaking Broadway successes, as well as unlikelier pursuits like trading on Wall Street and singing “Achy Breaky Heart” onstage. Largely content to bask in the great man’s glow, Angio provides generous clips and soundbites alongside fond reminiscences, but the celebratory tone leaves room for darker reflections. As skilled a self-promoter as he is, Van Peebles has always entwined the personal with the political. But if the Huey Newton–endorsed Sweetback made it cool to be a revolutionary, its lesser progeny did the same for pimps and dealers, reasserting the dead-end “positive image” discourse that Sweetback‘s empowering vision of black masculinity seemed to have blown away for good. How to Eat is finally nostalgic, albeit less so for Van Peebles, who at 73 remains active on multiple artistic fronts, than for a lost era when brash individualism and radical politics seemed to go hand in hand.