Who's the Man

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Review of 'Baadasssss!', director Mario Van Peebles

Baadasssss! is a movie about the making of a movie. Mario Van Peebles directs and plays the lead role. He knows the character inside out - the reason is, he's playing his own father. The story of his father, Melvin Van Peebles, is fascinating because of his struggle and determination to make a landmark film in Black America, a film by black Americans to be watched by black Americans. It was an idea not warmly welcomed by white studio bosses distributing to white cinema owners.

In 1971, buoyed by the relative commercial success of his last film, Watermelon Man, a comedy in which a bigoted white insurance salesman wakes up one day to discover he has black skin, Melvin Van Peebles is courted by studio bosses who, missing the point somewhat, sense a sequel along the lines of 'Fried Chicken Man'. Melvin has other ideas.

In the context of the high profile assassinations, civil rights demonstrations and race riots of the 1960s, black identity had been thrust into the spotlight and cultural expressions flourished. In music, the tentative codified expressions of early crossover gospel had been burst open with the mainstream success of artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield. But in cinema black representation had often been limited to roles of maids and other subservient comedy roles. By 1970 only Sidney Poitier had made any real breakthrough in being offered serious roles and material, but then only in measures palatable to white studio bosses. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for example, the issue of race is explored, but only by making Poitier the epitome of respectability, a middle class doctor, in an approach later institutionalised by Bill Cosby.

Melvin Van Peebles wanted a film that showed black urban power straight from the ghetto, whose lead character would 'get the man's foot out of his ass'! Laying the path for the Blaxploitation movies that followed, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is the story of a street hustler who goes on the run after killing two policemen involved in a racist attack, stopping only for run-ins with the police and shagging.

Music featured centrally as Blaxploitation took off. A new band called Earth Wind and Fire, looking for a break, would provide the soundtrack to Sweetback. As a result of Melvin making the movie he wanted, no studio would touch the film and he raised the money himself, acted himself and disguised its production as a porn flick to avoid using all white unionised labour.

Baadasssss! is Mario's dramatisation of his dad's troubled production of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In highlighting his achievements to a new audience, it succeeds. However it should have provided a wonderful opportunity to expose the racism and cowardice of the studio bosses at the time, but they get off lightly.

Instead Mario chooses to make an internalised movie that focuses on the minutiae of production and his relationship with his father as it was 34 years ago. There's nothing wrong with that as such, but this isn't just any independent moviemaker struggling to break through, and neglecting his family in the process. The politics of resistance was the driving force behind the original, and is conspicuous by its absence in this dramatisation. Only this can explain the bizarre and ill-fated use of fake documentary interviews that are grafted on to infuse some objectivity.


Release date: 10 June