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

By | August 19, 2020

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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

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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.