Cult Movies: Melvin Van Peebles ripped up the rule book with Sweet Sweetback's Bad Asssss Song

Writer, director and star Melvin Van Peebles
Ralph McLean

Melvin Van Peebles RIP

SWEET Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song changed how black street culture was portrayed by the mainstream media forever. In fact, it's a film that truly revolutionised Black cinema.

If such a statement seems a tad over the top, just consider the facts. Released in 1971, it was made totally outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system and tackled the stark realities of ghetto life that had hitherto been ignored by the industry.

Melvin Van Peebles, who passed away this week at the age of 89, wrote, directed and starred in his film and, in doing so, he created an ice cool blueprint that redefined black heroism on screen, inspiring generations of future black visionaries like Spike Lee to first get behind a camera in the process.

Like the man who made it, Sweetback was fresh, funky and effortlessly cool. The tale of a black sex worker who kills two white policemen and goes on the run, it explores important issues of sexuality, police brutality and black liberation against a properly soulful soundtrack that introduced the music of Earth, Wind & Fire to the world.

It wasn't the first of the so-called 'Blaxploitation' genre of films that would dominate cinema screens in the early 70s – that honour goes to Cotton Comes To Harlem, which hit cinemas nine months before Sweetback – but it's certainly one of the best and unquestionably the most influential.

Shaft, a straight-forward cop drama that had been kicking around Hollywood for ages, clocked Sweetback's vibe and quickly turned itself into a much more ethically angled story of a black cop hitting the mean streets of the big city to huge financial and critical acclaim.

Superfly, a cheap and cheerless tale of drug pushing in the ghetto with only a stunning Curtis Mayfield soundtrack to recommend it, did likewise and hoovered up some serious box office booty as well.

In fact, just about every streetwise crime flick that hopped the Blaxploitation bandwagon owes Sweetback a serious debt.

A genuinely independent film, it broke all kinds of records, raking in a huge profit (it was the highest grossing, self-produced film made in America to date), proving that a small, indie idea could flourish in the mainstream if it tapped into a story that people wanted to see.

As such, Melvin Van Peebles deserves to be remembered as a true maverick and cinematic pioneer, despite the glut of 'pimps, pushers and prostitutes'-laden fantasy fables that arrived in the wake of his game-changing film.

The only real surprise is his failure of build on the success of Sweetback in his own country. Perhaps Van Peebles, who'd taken to working in Europe when his early productions failed to find much support in America, never really cared about the backing of Hollywood. A man of many talents he simply had bigger cultural fish to fry.

A theatre writer, novelist, actor and all round agitator who was as inspired by the cool of the French New Wave as much as he was American cinema conventions, Van Peebles ripped up the rule book when he made Sweetback. We should all be grateful that he did.

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