A Chip Off the Old Baadasssss

Son's Baadasssss! a little too worshipful of father's blaxploitation flick

click to enlarge BUSINESS TRIP: The struggle of Melvin (Mario - Van Peebles, center right) to finance his movie is - both uphill and unorthodox. - MICHAEL OCONNOR
BUSINESS TRIP: The struggle of Melvin (Mario Van Peebles, center right) to finance his movie is both uphill and unorthodox.

Before Shaft, before Superfly, before the silver screen first expanded to accommodate the mighty contours of Pam Grier's Afro, there was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

Sweetback probably won't ring a bell with nearly the reverberation managed by those other staples of '70s blaxploitation, and there's a reason for that. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song probably says more about the black experience in America than any of those other movies, but its angry, rambling and self-conscious politics are no match for the hip, cool entertainment factor found in films like Shaft. Sweetback just hasn't aged well at all and, simply put, it isn't really a very good movie.

That doesn't take away from the fact that Sweetback, the top grossing independent film of 1971, got there first. And when it arrived, it took no prisoners and even changed the world a little bit.

The struggle to make Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is now the subject of a new movie called Baadasssss!, directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also happens to be the real-life son of Sweetback's director and star, Melvin Van Peebles. Just to complicate things further, Mario also plays Melvin in the movie, and the fact that the son also happens to be a dead ringer for his father (in younger days) gives Baadasssss! the sort of resonance that money usually just can't buy.

Melvin Van Peebles, who is still very much alive (although kicking a bit less furiously), was quite a character back in the day. A curious mix of artist, revolutionary and showbiz huckster, Melvin gave up what promised to be a successful career making "normal" Hollywood pictures in order to pursue a risky dream. The dream dreamed by Van Peebles (Melvin added the "Van" for artistic credibility) was to make a film full of righteous racial indignation, featuring members of the African-American community — "all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted" — and then sell it directly back to that community. Taking its cue from the fashionable politics of early '70s-style radicalism, the movie would be about a "real street brother getting The Man's foot out of his ass." It would also feature lots of violence and lots of lots of sex. No dummy, that Melvin — he wanted to get his messages heard, but he also knew how to sell those messages.

The story of how Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song came together offers a sort of template for what American independent filmmaking would become in the Sundance era. What Baadasssss! shows us is very nearly a prototype of the low-budget filmmaker scraping together a ragtag crew to put something up on the screen that pushes the boundaries of what was previously available there. In the end, the process of the making and marketing of Sweetback was a good bit more interesting than the film itself — just like so many independent movies today — but that's not really the concern of Baadasssss! (which tends to revere Sweetback as a funkier Citizen Kane). History is continually being rewritten, from the now vanished textbooks of the old Soviet Union to the films of Oliver Stone, and Mario Van Peebles is only the newest member of the club.

Mario is also smart enough to realize that if you're going to rewrite history (assuming you're writing for an American audience), then you'd better rewrite it in an entertaining way. Baadasssss! is no Boogie Nights, but it has brisk, uncomplicated fun presenting Melvin's unorthodox, uphill battle to finance and finish his movie, detailing the filmmaker flitting back and forth between the early '70s counterculture and the more traditional enclaves of Hollywood power, in search of backing. There are big acid parties complete with naked, day-glo-painted bodies dancing under strobe lights, lots of retro fashions, and Adam "Batman" West even shows up as a lecherous Hollywood producer. So how bad can it be?

As far as filmmaking chops go, however, neither of the Van Peebles is exactly what you'd call a world-class talent, although Melvin was at least able to make up in raw energy what he lacked in finesse or focus. Mario, on the other hand, is more of a methodical, journeyman director — sometimes uncomfortably close to the competent but undistinguished Hollywood hacks that his dad used to rail against — and he often seems to be straining to provide the appropriate sort of "edge" called for by this material. Super-funky groove music and '70s-style visual effects are scattered throughout Baadasssss!, along with sprinklings of fairly benign sex, but it barely disguises a certain routine, almost staid approach that often seems more in keeping with a made-for-TV docudrama.

With material this interesting, it would be next to impossible to make a dull movie, but I have to admit I got a bigger bang out of listening to Melvin's own rambling accounts during his director's commentary on my old laserdisc of Sweetback than I did watching Baadasssss!. Mario's retelling is decidedly less eccentric and, even with the movie's occasional digs at Melvin's flaws as a man and as a father, it leans a bit heavily on the rose-colored glasses, and not just for psychedelic effect.

Still, every boy wants his dad to be a hero, I suppose, and Mario seems to have found one in his portrait of Melvin, seen here as a cigar-chompin' macho-man/artiste, every bit as flamboyant and fractured as the larger-than-life hero he plays in Sweetback. Previously, the younger Van Peebles indirectly (and imperfectly) channeled the anything-goes zeitgeist of the '60s/'70s in the stylistic affectations of Posse and even New Jack City. In Panther, he took on that entire era, using as his primary source a book written by his father. Now, in Baadasssss!, Mario goes so far as to assume the persona of dear old Dad and the mantle of Dad's glory days, while exorcising a few ghosts in the meantime.

The result is enjoyable enough, but a bit too cautious and not particularly surprising, with an energy level that dissipates as the film cruises into its second hour. Amusing as it is, this overly literal Baadasssss! is almost the antithesis of Sweetback, which remains a movie less important for what it actually is than for what it came to mean. In terms of pure bang-for-your-buck entertainment value, of course, Baadasssss! is still a better movie than Sweetback, but that's really beside the point. And even if it weren't, neither Mario nor Melvin would ever let you get away with the comparison.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected].


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