on 13 July 2005
This was pioneering stuff for back in 1971, a film where the black guy isn't just a lovable clown playing it up for the rich white guy, or any other stereotype that filled the big screen back in the day. Melvin Van Peebles created a a film 'for all the brothers and sisters tired of the man,' working against the actors guild of the time and making possibly the most un-Hollywood film ever. No one wanted to touch it to begin with, but it grossed over £11 million, made Peebles a household name (sort of) but most importantly gave birth to the whole Blaxploitation genre and made Black cinema as great and important as anything else commited to film.
Also, don't sleep on the soundtrack. It features a damn funkin' Earth, Wind & Fire before anyone knew who they were, along with Peebles'own madcap chants and outbursts. Anyone who has heard Madlib's Quasimoto albums will already be familiar with some of the tracks as they form a large proportion of his vocal samples.
Anyway, essential inspirational viewing. Proof indeed that if you want to achieve somrthing, it is possible. If you're good enough. And Melvin Van Peebles was/is. Keep it funkin' y'all.
They won't bleed me.
on 25 July 2015
From my 1967-75 movie blog; (by all means, follow me!)
‘This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man’
With this opening text on screen, film-maker Melvin Van Peebles signalled his uncompromising attitude up-front for SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSS SONG. This would not be an impassioned Martin Luther King appeal to one nation sentiments. Nor would it be a film bathed in well-intentioned Spielbergian warmth, hoping for a brotherhood that can work together. This was an angry manifesto of non-compliance by blacks toward whites, borne of long-suffering inequality and demonization. Little wonder that the Black Panthers endorsed the movie on release.
It is also widely-regarded as the first film of the Blaxploitation movement. It all begins here…
There are many unusual and refreshing qualities to the film. The lead credit is boldly given to ’The Black Community’ as a whole, presenting them as a united front of contribution. This will be hammered home even more blatantly later.
SWEET SWEETBACK’s title character does not inhabit a typically soft conventional job for a movie lead. Rather than pander to a lame stereotype, Van Peebles pointedly made him a ‘sexual animal’ (as he called him in a later interview I saw). Leaving aside the possibility that this plays more on black sexual stereotypes than rejection, Sweetback makes his living by pleasuring the ladies as a stud performer, a technique he acquires at a very young age from a lady within his brothel home. This is an awkward scene to watch as the child actor is clearly well under the age of legal consent – but arguably is all part of the director’s challenge to accepted censorship of home truths on-screen. (Richard Pryor for example was raised in such a home). Regardless, Sweetback grows up a taciturn dude who speaks more with his love-spanner than his vocal instrument.
When his employer frames him for a murder to help two white cops, Sweetback kills them and then must flee the city right out into the Mexican desert. The last half of the movie then becomes a virtual travelogue matched with the funky tunes of Earth Wind & Fire, making one stop-off point where he wins a shagging contest with a chapter of Hell’s Angels. The extended chase is handled in a rough, hand-held cinéma vérité style very much at odds with standard polished film narrative – and very effective for it. While our anti-hero is pursued by the fuzz, what look like real members of ‘the Black Community’ are quizzed in vox-pops to camera. They close ranks, unanimously reporting variations of “I ain’t seen him” as if straight to the white movie audience. The message from the public to the cops and ‘the man’ is clear: ‘Since you won’t support us, we won’t support you either’.
This brazen defiance of authority that seems to break the fourth wall is exhilarating – and all too understandable especially as the mainly Caucasian police are portrayed very definitely as deserving it. The white cops are sadistic and ineffective. Whether it’s intentional portrayal or simply bad acting, they can’t seem to land a decent punch never mind effectively threaten a suspect or catch their man . At one point, the officer in charge of the manhunt drops the ‘n-bomb’ in his briefing to his men, too late to register two black cops in the team. To compound his ill-judgment, as the rest file out Van Peebles has him taking them both to one side and apologising with ‘You know you two could be a credit to your people’. With such face-palm moments of race relations on the force, how can the public trust the Five-Oh to relate respectfully to them?
The documentary vibe of SWEET SWEETBACK is consistent through-out, and Van Peebles makes other experimental style choices: dissolves, freeze-frames, brief split-screen sequences, unfocused shots and even editing choices that repeat dialogue lines. One critic compared his work to Godard in this respect.
Sweetback ends the film still at-large and to a harsh trumpet music cue we are warned ‘Watch out. A baad assss n***er is coming back to collect some dues’ (My asterisks). We are left in no doubt that not only has a mission statement of wrath been declared to white society, but with the closing credit of ‘Written, composed, produced, directed and edited by Melvin Van Peebles’ that it is a singular vision by a proud, real auteur.
What originally was funded by private money, including $50,000 borrowed from Bill Cosby, made back $10m. Blaxploitation was in business…
on 13 December 2007
This is quite possibly the worst film ever made! The story behind the production and the intentions of Peebles may be inspiring, but the movie sure ain't. Sure, the backbone of it was a seriously slap in the face for the oppressive end of the white establishment which still resonates today - and rightly so. But the significant message this movie was conceived to communicate is utterly lost in an unbearably sloppy 90 minute montage of badly edited violence, endless footage of Peebles running and a few tasteless sex scenes.
I would like to start by pointing out that I have no moral objection to this film, unlike a lot of people who criticise. I love black cinema. I grew up on ropey blaxpoloitation movies and appreciate that cinematic brilliance was not on the top of the priority list for the people who made these movies. However, I cannot get past the fact that this movie is utterly incoherent from start to finish. The plot is almost non-existent, and only about a third of the screen time has anything to do with the 'story' anyway. There are random scenes that have no apparent meaning or significance whatsoever.
It looks dreadful, as if the cameraman was on speed and crack at the same time. Beyond this, the night sequences (which make up a large percentage of the film) are so dark that you literally cannot see a thing. Alas, that may be just as well, as it goes some small way to detracting from the mind-blowingly poor 'acting'. Sweetback himself just pouts and minces about, and he's the best 'character' in there. The sound is awful, often with two songs (the same two songs on a continuous loop) literally playing on top of each other.
I really wanted to like this movie, and I still acknowledge it as a milestone in American culture and social history. As a side note, it was not the first blaxploitation film as is popularly believed - Cotton Comes to Harlem was a year earlier. That said, technically Sweetback isn't a blaxploitation film at all as it was financed and produced entirely by a black man. Moot point really, but worth mentioning.
In case my point has been lost, let me recapitulate. Sweet Sweetback has to be one of the very worst films I have ever seen in my life. As a piece of cinema, there is absolutely nothing redeeming about it whatsoever.
Approach this as a documentation of the shift in (black) American social consciousness as it related to popular culture of the late '60s and early '70s. Otherwise avoid it altogether, you'll thank me later.