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

Entertainment | August 21, 2020

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.

Sweetback created Blaxploitation

source: Cinemation Industries

Film scholars have argued that while Sweet Sweetback created a space for Blaxploitation cinema that the first actual Blaxploitation film was Shaft, a film released by MGM later in 1971 following Van Peebles’ independent stunner, but that feels like splitting hairs. Controversial from the start, Blaxploitation films depicted black characters as protagonists, but rather than make them squeaky clean, the films often showed them carrying out criminal acts in the name of the greater good. In the case of Sweetback and many other films of the era the main characters were also prone to extreme violence.

When MGM put Shaft into production it was clear that the distribution company felt that this sub-genre of action and crime films was a serious moneymaker. It’s unlikely that MGM (or any other white-owned production or distribution company) would have made films like Shaft or Superfly without the Van Peebles’ indelible work.  

Van Peebles spent his own money to make ‘Sweet Sweetback’

source: Cinemation Industries

In the late 1960s Melvin Van Peebles was in the enviable place of being offered a three picture contract with Columbia Films following the success of Watermelon Man, his second feature film. However, Van Peebles wanted to make films that spoke to black audiences, specifically to people who were aligned with the Black Power movement.

Rather than take Columbia’s deal, Van Peebles decided to finance his own film. After driving through the Mojave desert he watched the sun set and the basic idea of Sweetback came to him. Studio financing was not an option for Van Peebles at this point so he put his own money on the table and with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby he had enough cash to shoot for 19 days.

Written, directed, produced, music by, and starring Mario Van Peebles

source: TIFF

There are few filmmakers who can really do it all - Van Peebles proved himself to be in rare company with Sweetback. Not only did he write and direct the film, but he stars as the main character, edited the film, and worked with Earth, Wind & Fire on the score as well (more on that later).

After auditioning several actors for the part, Van Peebles was tired of explaining why Sweetback didn’t have more lines. Rather than rewrite the character he decided to play the role himself, which meant performing some dangerous stunts as well as a few sex scenes that are allegedly un-simulated.

Van Peebles took more than a few hits as his own stuntman. In one scene, he had to jump off a bridge nine times to get the perfect shot, and he reportedly contracted gonorrhea during a sex scene. It’s rumored that he applied for workers’ comp with the Directors Guild because he was “hurt on the job.” 

The film was shot in “globs” not scenes

source: Cinemation Industries

Most films, even independent features, are shot over a period of anywhere between 30 days to a year (that time frame applies to big budget tentpole films that require digital effects and reshoots), but Sweetback was shot in a quick 19 days. Van Peebles says that because he was working on a tight budget and with a cast and crew with tons of amateurs he had to film entire sequences in “globs” in order to make sure that characters were wearing the right clothing and that their hair didn’t change from scene to scene.

He’s never said that he was frustrated with the members of the cast and crew who didn’t know that they shouldn’t go get a haircut or wear the same outfit for multiple days of shooting, only that he wanted to make sure that no time was wasted taking care of tiny continuity errors. The finished product is definitely rough, but the fact that he actually made a cohesive movie in such a short period of time speaks to his genius and ability.

Van Peebles didn't have money to advertise the movie so he released the soundtrack before the film came out

source: Cinemation Industries

When it came time to create the soundtrack for his film, Van Peebles was at a loss for what to do. He wasn’t a composer in the traditional sense but he knew what he wanted. As luck would have it, his secretary was dating one of the members of Earth, Wind & Fire at the time and she convinced him to chat them up about working on the movie. They were all living in one apartment together so they jumped at the opportunity.

Van Peebles projected scenes from the film as the band performed, mixing jazz, gospel, and R&B into a one-of-a-kind soundtrack that informed crime soundtracks on through the ‘90s. Seriously, listen to the Sweetback theme and the Get Shorty theme back to back, it’s clear that John Lurie was pulling from Van Peebles’ film.

With no money to actually promote the film, Van Peebles ended up releasing the soundtrack to Sweetback before the release of the film. This got audiences hyped on the music and it worked as non-traditional advertising. The soundtrack went to #13 on the R&B album chart and everyone who bought the album went to see the movie.

“Sweetback” brought in a lot of sweet cash

source: Cinemation Industries

The final budget of Sweetback was $150,000 and when it was released to the theaters it made $15 million. That’s an insane return on an investment. The success of the film inspired black filmmakers to write and direct their own movies, and its success showed distributors that there was money to be made with black audiences. According to Van Peebles, with Sweetback he invented independent cinema. He told NPR:

Independent films did not exist before. There were three or four little things that they made film go bloop, bloop, bloop with the dots and it's over. Nobody made money. I made a film that made money. That changed everything.

Tags: Black Power | Blaxploitation | Melvin Van Peebles | Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song | X-rated Movies

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.