Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
May 13, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 19
By Michael Kerbel
Melvin Van Peebles’s “SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG” does for the black movement what “Getting Straight” did for the student movement: reduces it to escapist entertainment, cinematic stylishness, and near nonsense. Van Peebles’s problem is that he wants to make angry protests but wrap them in glamorous packages. The first black director to break into commercial cinema, Van Peebles obviously feels deeply about black oppression. But he has chosen, paradoxically, to make the kinds of unrealistic films for which blacks have justly criticized white film-makers.
In his first feature, “The Story of a Three Day Pass” (made in France after he could not find work in Hollywood), an idealized affair between a black GI and a white French girl was rendered dream-like through impressionistic film techniques. His second feature, “Watermelon Man,” made in Hollywood, was more of a fantasy: an average white businessman is transformed mysteriously into a black man. These rather pleasant entertainments — romance and farce, respectively — became stringed by sudden intrusions of imposed black power sentiments.
“Sweetback,” for which Van Peebles presumably had unlimited freedom (he also was scenarist, producer, editor, music composer, and star), is his most self-contradictory work. It is basically a conventional chase film. Sweetback, who works in a Los Angeles brothel, attacks two white cops after seeing them beat up a brother. The balance of the film is about Sweetback’s attempt to escape to the border. As he flees, he encounters various representatives of the black community — some of whom help, most of whom want to be uninvolved. Sweetback is the familiar odd man out, strikingly familiar to the Poitier character in “The Lost Man.” In fact, as played by Van Peebles, the protagonist is even more glamorous and less authentic than the super-cool heroes Poitier has portrayed for years. Despite enormous odds against him, he emerges — almost mystically — a triumphant man.
A black escapist (or escape) film is not inherently reprehensible — all audiences need superheroes. What is uncomfortable here is Van Peebles’s continuing insistence on also making relevant and angry statements: from the opening dedication — “To all brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man” — to the warning to whitey at the end. Little in the film justifies its pretensions. Although there is great violence, it is performed by incredibly caricatured pig-cops. Such police undoubtedly exist, but we never believe it because Van Peebles has all the white actors deliver lines as if they were robots. Everything becomes unconvincing except on a symbolic-mythic level. This is especially true of the hero, who remains silent throughout much of the film. We are supposed to regard him as a symbol of oppressed blacks, not as a result of what he says (or does), but because of the feelings we bring to the film. Van Peebles does not probe deeply; like Godard’s recent films, “Sweetback” appeals to emotions and prejudices present in an already sympathetic audience.
Furthermore, the film does not work on its own propagandistic terms, because we never really identify with the mythic hero (as we do in “Potemkin” or even “Cool Hand Luke”). Dazzling techniques — hand-held cameras, rapid zooms, freeze frames, superimpositions, multiple images, fast cutting — are intended to present a subjective picture of the character’s plight. The result, however, is the opposite: mere visual virtuosity — curiously objective, non-involving, and ultimately confusing. It is especially difficult to understand how the audience to whom the film is dedicated will make sense out of the labyrinthine pseudo-nouvelle vague style. Even as escapism, the film is self-defeating and emotionally exhausting.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]