A very important pioneer figure in Blacksploitation and father of actor Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles has died at the age of 89.
Actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and above all a pioneer in the cinema of the Blacksploitation to whom we owe the classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song released in 1971 or Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles died this Tuesday at the age of 89 at his home in Manhattan.
Filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins hailed on Twitter the death of a “pioneer”. Spike Lee on his side declares himself “deeply affected by the loss of [son] brother Melvin Van Peebles, who brought independent noir cinema to the fore […]”.
It was his son, actor – director Mario Van Peebles, who broke the news in a statement: “Dad knew black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? […] True liberation did not mean having to emulate the mentality of the colonizer. It meant appreciating the strength, the beauty and the connection between all individuals ”.
The quintessential American publisher-distributor and movie buff, Criterion, promptly saluted the memory of Melvin Van Peebles:
“During an unparalleled career characterized by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles has left an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and his music”.
Born August 21, 1932 in Chicago, the man nicknamed “The Godfather of Black Cinema” landed in Hollywood a bit by chance. Wishing to become a director, he began by tinkering with a few short films at the end of the fifties.
Invited by the Cinémathèque française who wanted to screen his short films, Melvin moved to Paris. Learning French, he was even hired to translate the magazine Mad in French, and also contributes to the magazine Hara-kiri.
Writing plays in French and some short stories, he ends up adapting one of them, which will be his very first film: La Permission, in 1968. The story of a black GI on leave for three days in Paris, where he meets Miriam (Nicole Berger), and falls under his spell, before racial prejudices get involved.
It is with this film as a calling card, shot for a budget of $ 70,000, that Melvin Van Peebles can sign his first American film for a large studio, Columbia, with Watermelon Man. In this rereading of Metamorphosis from Kafka, a deeply racist white man wakes up one beautiful dark morning.
Played by comedian Godfrey Cambridge, the character will gradually accept his new identity before joining the Black Panther. A ferocious satire, quite brilliant, whose political purpose is still relevant today.
Here is the trailer …
The turning point of Blacksploitation
Genre which knew how to revalorize the image of the African-American community, which presented them in dignified and leading roles, and no longer only in secondary roles, of foil or quite simply devaluing, as Hollywood did during several decades, the Blacksploitation put an end to the unique model of integration of the black community into the film industry, embodied until then by Sidney Poitier.
In this context, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song of Melvin Van Peebles was like a bomb when he came out. Financed in particular by a loan of $ 50,000 from Bill Cosby for an overall budget of $ 100,000, the film brought in about 10 million greenbacks.
To orchestrate the publicity around his film, Melvin Van Peebles had the genius to put forward the soundtrack (an idea very little used at the time), by calling on the group Earth, Wind and Fire, thus creating the alliance between black music and cinema.
One of the great peculiarities of the Blacksploitation is that many of his films had brilliant soundtracks: almost all the great black musicians of the 1970s composed his soundtracks, such as James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers …
Below is the trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song:
This work, the most famous of Melvin Van Peebles, was also selected last year to join the prestigious Library of Congress of the United States, given its cinematographic and historical importance.
In 1972, he continued with another success, the musical Don’t Play Us Cheap!, which he will adapt for the Broadway boards. It will also be cited three times for a Tony Award.
A multi-faceted artist, he is …