'Sweet Sweetback,' Blaxploitation's Beginning: Facts And Stories About Melvin Van Peebles

By Jacob Shelton
Actor/director Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971. He is posing outside a cinema which is showing his action thriller 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song'. (Photo by Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

With Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles not only ushered in the Blaxploitation genre but he single handedly showed the power of an independent black director. This 1971 feature follows the picaresque exploits of Sweetback, a man on the run after killing two police officers who are attacking a young man. In a kill-or-be-killed scenario, Sweetback takes out his pursuers without asking any questions.

Aside from ushering in an era of street smart, fast paced crime films specifically made for the black community, Sweetback was the top grossing independent film of 1971 even though it received an X rating for all of its explicit sexual content. The film brought out audiences in droves, making people stand up and take notice of Van Peebles as well as the work of African American filmmakers.