Sweet and Sour
Mario Van Peebles’ Hagiography of his Father is Rated Vexed by an All-white Jury
|Director:||Mario Van Peebles|
|Cast:||Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T.K. Carter, Terry Crews, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Nia Long, Paul Rodriguez, Saul Rubinek, Vincent Schiavelli|
|Screen Writer:||Mario Van Peebles|
Melvin Van Peebles is a motherfucker. When the cigar-chewing, tumescent ego made his 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, he wasn’t going to take no shit from nobody. He was going to write it. He was going to direct it. He was going to edit it. And goddamnit, he was going to star in it if he had to. He was going to find a way to finance it himself. He was going to round up a crazy enough crew to work nonunion and go to jail if it came to that. He was going to bankrupt himself in the process. He was going to shoot on whatever film stock he could get. He was going to go blind in one eye. He was going to alienate his son, his girlfriend, and every one else who sacrificed some part of his or her life to help him make it. And if he ever finished the thing, he was going to distribute it on his own terms, too. All because his story was too important not to do the way it needed to be done: A brought-up-from-the-streets hustling brother was going to dust two bigoted pigs beating up a black man and get away with it.
That all of the above is true makes Melvin Van Peebles a stone-cold force of nature. Van Peebles made an independent film when faced with an early-’70s studio system that didn’t want to understand what he was trying to achieve. His crew was a mix of men and women, African-Americans, Latinos, and whites, with experienced artisans working alongside nonunion/unskilled novices trying to break into the trade. He invented cost-saving measures to try to stick to budget. And he reached out and found an African-American filmgoing audience that Hollywood assumed didn’t exist. His characters looked like, talked like, and felt like them—up there, on the screen, where the white folks’ heroes usually are.
Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, a fictionalized making-of re-creation of this period in his father’s life, relishes both versions of his father and is the greatest tribute a filmmaker could give another. It’s also why Baadasssss! frequently feels like an overexcited mess. Mario’s efforts to find inside himself the same headstrong adrenaline that fueled his father’s project succeed—Mario writes, directs, and stars in this lively stunt. The problem isn’t with the player, but the game. Baadasssss! so sincerely admires its period’s revolutionary fervor that it occasionally resembles the consciousness-raised collegiate done up in ’70s duds reciting lines he read in Malcolm X Speaks that afternoon.
ýiraculously, Mario himself prevents the film from venturing entirely into the ridiculous. He looks like he’s waited his entire career to portray his father as an egomaniacal asshole-cum-supergenius. When he appears onscreen in the Melvin getup the first few times—cowboy boots and black hat, jeans and jean jacket, tight-shirted or shirtless—it’s hard to tell where he’s going with the picture: heartfelt dramatization, farcical lampoon, or character assassination.
Turns out Mario aims for all three, but he only hits one target at a time. Mario was a 13-year-old on his father’s set (and made his screen debut in Sweetback’s), and he brings with him the unusual weapon of firsthand experience—albeit that knowledge is some 30 years old and filtered through who knows what kind of teen-memory defense. And he does look to be flying purely on instinct. Certain moments bristle with a liveliness that captures what it must’ve been like to work by Melvin’s pants-seat vigor—he blows up a car and then shoots fire fighters arriving to extinguish it to get that footage without having to pay for costumes, actors, props, etc. Certain moments ring a tad too tongue-in-cheeky—like the Sweetback character, almost no woman can resist the sexual allure of Mario’s Melvin, and practically every Baadasssss! California chick is willing to drop knickers at a smile’s flash. And some moments barely compute: At one point, Mario, playing his father, has a severely dysfunctional conversation with Khleo Thomas, playing the young Mario, sending the mind chasing after enough metafictional possibilities to choke Charlie Kaufman.
That the movie version of Melvin’s story can’t withstand the flimsiest critical scrutiny leaves you feeling a little empty when the house lights come up. Baadasssss! is an immensely entertaining movie precisely because it asks absolutely nothing of you, whereas the movie and man it portrays changed the way movies looked and thought. And that’s something not even Baadasssss! can taint. A title card in Sweetback’s reads this film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man. Melvin Van Peebles was addressing the community, but he was also talking to subsequent generations of independent filmmakers, who today frequently take for granted everything that Melvin forged by sheer will.