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January 10, 2009

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

1971, Dir. by Melvin Van Peebles

In 2003, Mario Van Peebles - most known to filmgoers as star of things like Highlander 3 and Solo (and those are reviews for another day) - directed, wrote, and starred in Baadasssss!, a chronicle of his father's journey to make this film. The younger Van Peebles' film is a heartfelt drama that shows an interesting side of society and cinema at the time, while giving his father's film credit for starting the exploitation movement of the 1970s. It really makes you believe there was a revolution at hand, and that his father was a pioneer in the history of cinema.

I can't debate those points, nor do I want to. But I can say one thing - Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, relevant or not, is a mess of a motion picture.

The Plot
The film begins with young Sweetback (played by a 14 year old Mario), losing his virginity with a prostitute. And it's a vivid scene. After that, we're introduced to adult Sweetback - now a prostitute who does "public shows", and is apparently important enough to be a friend of the local police. That changes when two white police officers take him along (for no particular reason) so he can witness them beating a member of the Black Panthers severely. Sweetback can't take this any longer, and in a blind rage beats down the two officers. Then he goes on the run.

And that's about it for the plot, even though there are about 70 minutes left in the film at this point. The rest of the film involves Sweetback running, meeting old friends, having more sex, and continuing to run. According to Melvin, it's his way of showing "how to get the man's foot out of your ass". According to The Mike, it's dull.

The Good
I'm very glad I saw his son's tribute film before I saw Melvin's "masterpiece". With background knowledge, it's really interesting to see how the film played out considering the behind the scenes issues, and it's also easier to understand the motivation behind the film. As Melvin has said repeatedly, previous films about the black community were always told from the white perspective. While I'm not sure Van Peebles' voice is the voice of the entire black community, it's definitely a new voice compared to what Hollywood was used to, and it opened the door for a lot of movies that succeeded thereafter. Van Peebles also succeeds in using extras and real people to provide the image of the black community, and the solidarity of the characters had to be a point of pride for those dealing with the racial tensions of the time. This is probably the film's biggest achievement, and the one thing that keeps me from labeling a total disaster.

The film boasts a dreamlike quality throughout, with camera tricks, changes in color schemes, and background music composed by Van Peebles and played by a then unknown band called Earth, Wind, and Fire. While the film lacks in plot, the odd presentation actually plays to its favor, and at least keeps it interesting from a visual standpoint, a pretty strong achievement for an independent film of the time.

The Bad
I've said it already, but I'll say it again, in more simple terms. This is a 97 minute movie about a man running from the police and being a manwhore while doing so. That's it. It's terribly paced, repetitive, and lacks tension throughout. In the meantime, lots of characters are barely introduced, many scenes involve characters talking directly to the camera, and the vulgarity of it is pretty hard to swallow.

Random Moments
  • There's not much more to say outside of "See Sweetback Run".
  • Beware the penises.
  • The final scene's onscreen warning might be the highlight of the film.
The Verdict
I'm not of the race or era to pass judgement on the phenomenon that was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. With an assist from his son's film, it's easy to see why Melvin Van Peebles made the film he did, and the fact that it's still being seen and talked about almost 40 years later is a greater achievement than most independent filmmakers can ever dream of.

But seriously, just watch his son's film if you're interested from a technical standpoint. I don't mean to be the man and stick my foot anywhere, but this movie is inept more often than it is interesting.

The Mike's Rating: Skip It!

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