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…