When Melvin Van Peebles Read His Obituary; or, The passing of a pioneer

In George Alexander’s book of interviews with thirty two African American filmmakers, Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema (Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, 2003), Melvin Van Peebles tells the following anecdote: “I’ve got this great foolproof system in the morning. I look at the paper, I read the obituaries. If I’m not there, I get out of bed.”

On 21 September 2021 Van Peebles must have read his own obituary. He did not get out of bed. Born in Chicago in 1932, he was 89 years old when he passed away in his home in New York. 

Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. In 1972 I visited the United States with my first wife. We travelled cross-country by Greyhound, one Black South African woman and one white European male, visiting with my wife’s two brothers in California, and other South African exiles. In Chicago we heard the reverend Jesse Jackson talk in his church about his experiences at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach (he would himself be a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, with his ‘Rainbow’ coalition), and urging members of the congregation to boycott businesses in Chicago that did not employ African Americans.

But I must get back to the beginning of the trip, to New York. Reading the newspapers, we bought tickets for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) and Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972), two Broadway shows for which Melvin Van Peebles wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics. The first of these musical plays, Ain’t Supposed to Die …, based in part on material from his albums like Brer Soul (1968), and directed by Gilbert Moses who had made his name as a founding member of the Free Southern Theatre (1963-1980) in Mississippi, was groundbreaking. Don’t Play Us Cheap, directed by Melvin Van Peebles himself, seemed somehow more conventional.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But before the plays there were the films. In the late 1950s he had made a few shorts that caught the attention of Henri Langlois of the famous Cinémathèque Francaise. Moving to Paris via Holland he wrote five works of fiction in French, including La Permission that became his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), about rank and race in the U.S. Army, in 1970 landing him a three-picture contract with Columbia.

Watermelon Man (1970) is about a white man who wakes up one day to discover that he has become black overnight (reminding you of novelist George S. Schuyler’s classic 1931 satire Black No More). Columbia wanted him to film an alternative ending where our hero wakes up to discover that it had all just been a dream, a nightmare. Van Peebles, who had not written the script, refused.

And Columbia, cancelling their contract, would have nothing to do with his next project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). It would not be until many years later when BFI, the British Film Institute, in 2005 released a dvd-video that would play in ‘region 2’, Denmark included, that I saw this X-rated movie (the sex and the violence). Sweetback, a street hustler, played by Melvin Van Peebles, watches “a young black man get beaten within an inch of his life” by two crooked   cops “and decides to fight back,” to quote the back cover for the dvd, killing the cops and making his escape to Mexico, fleeing through the unruly urban landscape of America in the early 1970s.  

Pioneer of black independent cinema. Was his indie film ‘black and revolutionary’, as claimed by Black Panther Party chairman Huey P. Newton in the essay He Won’t Bleed Me (see Black Panther, 19 January 1971)? Or ‘neither black nor revolutionary’ as argued by historian and editor Lerone Bennett Jr. in The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland (Ebony, September 1971)?

Either way, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made history. Without the backing by Columbia Van Peebles borrowed $50,000 from Bill Cosby and raised another $150,000 on his own. Shot in nineteen days with a non-union crew, the film went on to gross a record ten million dollars, for a couple of weeks outselling even Love Story, the romantic hit with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.

When only two cinemas initially agreed to screen his film, Melvin Van Peebles proved to be a wizard of publicity, working ‘through the grapevine’ to promote his film, turning the X-rating to his advantage by printing T-shirts reading “Rated X by an all-white jury,” and releasing his soundtrack, performed by the innovative and popular band Earth, Wind & Fire, through Stax Records.   

Sweetback opened the eyes of the film industry to the fact that there was a black audience out there willing and able to pay the price of a ticket to see themselves on the big white screen. Hollywood was soon in a rush to hire black directors and actors to produce films that had the sex and the violence of Melvin Van Peebles’s film, but not necessarily its potentially ‘revolutionary’ message.

In the long run the black audience could not see themselves as portrayed in these stereotypical ‘blaxploitation’ films, and by the mid-to-late 1970s the genre as such had run its course.

Just an Old Sweet Song. Melvin Van Peebles’s example proved that black filmmakers could make movies independent of Hollywood. And Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It, 1986), the most successful and productive African American film director of all times, working both as an independent and with Hollywood, surely learned from Van Peebles’s ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking techniques.

There were other black indie filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima, and Julie Dash (see Alexander’s book, mentioned above), and today we see an explosion of African American talent in films, Barry Jenkins in 2016 winning an Oscar for best picture with Moonlight.

Melvin Van Peebles continued to be active in films and theatre, but nothing quite seemed to match his earlier work. On 29 October 1977 Danish television aired the TV-film Just an Old Sweet Song (1976). Van Peebles wrote the teleplay and the music for the film that was directed by Robert Ellis Miller with a first-rate cast of actors, including Robert Hooks, Cicely Tyson, and Beah Richards. 

In my readings of African American literature, the name Melvin Van Peebles appeared again when Norton reprinted the great Chester Himes’s prison-novel in their series of Old School Books. Heavily cut and bowdlerized when it was first published in 1952 as Cast the First Stone, it was restored by Norton and reissued as Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998) with a fine introduction and reminiscence by Melvin Van Peebles who had known and been a friend of the streetwise older expat writer – a kindred spirit – when he, Van Peebles, was living in Paris.