Saturday, April 23, 2005

Melvin Van Peebles epitomizes the word “badass”. Ever since my film professor at UGA showed clips from his early films to us in our ethnic cinema class, he’s been something of a hero of my mine. He was the quintessential independent filmmaker, completely uncompromising in his vision. Though it cost him more money than he had, friends, and even his eyesight temporarily, he never lost his integrity. The film Baadasssss! pays tribute to Melvin Van Peebles’s unique passion, and is written and directed by his son Mario Van Peebles, who has been a real treat to have here at Ebertfest. Though the film largely tells the story of an uncompromising artist, it doesn’t soften any of the negative aspects that came out when he became obsessive about finishing his film. Mario Van Peebles, who plays his own father in the film, said earlier is “psychotherapy in celluloid”. He also said that “Yeah, there’s an oedipal thing going on there.”

One of the crucial things about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is that when it was made, Melvin insisted that he only use a multi-racial, 50/50 male/female crew. This, of course, in 1971, meant that he would have to avoid making a union film because the union would never go for it. Mario Van Peebles said for the making of Baadasssss! that he also insisted on a multi-racial, 50/50 male/female crew. The difference was that this time around, it was a union film and it was a testament to what his father’s vision really meant.

After the movie, Mario Van Peebles presented a surprise short film entitled Baadasssss Grandkids! which starred Mario’s children in a parody of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. It was made as a tribute to Mario’s father for his birthday. It was hilarious. Mario had plenty of stories to tell about the making of his film all perfectly timed and articulated. You could sense that he’s probably told these stories over and over since the release of his film and that’s how he’s perfected them. He said that his father charged him for the footage he used from the original he used in Baadasssss! from the original Sweetback. But he also re-shot some of the scenes from the original Sweetback with himself playing the part. When they re-shot one of the famous scenes of Sweetback running through the channel, a hobo popped out of nowhere, saw the surreal image, and shouted triumphantly, “It’s Sweetback! He’s back! He really did come back!” He then looked at his bottle like it was something magical.

One of my favorite stories was about one of the characters named Big-T, who back when Sweetback was made, was essentially tossed into the world of sound recording as the boom operator. When we meet him in the film we learn of his passion for barbecue (something of which I identify with greatly). Van Peebles said that Big-T went on to become one of the first black sound-mixers in the industry. But, because he never was satisfied with the craft services on set, he used to bring his own meat. He would put it on one of the big10k lights in the morning and by lunchtime it would be cooked and smelling good. Probably the quote of the evening, however, came when Van Peebles talked about the making of Posse and Stephen Baldwin’s involvement. “There’s always a Baldwin for your budget.”

At one point,Van Peebles described the early pressures of black actors to be perfect “uber-negroes” as essentially playing Spock on Star Trek – to play the buddy and be perfectly square and harmless. “It’s like Bush and Colin Powell. Colin Powell is Spock.” That was pretty much the image that his father was setting out to destroy with his movies and that’s why they are so significant. Roger described Melvin Van Peebles as a Renaissance man. He’s a filmmaker, poet, playwright, musician, and a stockbroker. Kind of reminds me of Howard Armstrong, the musician/artist who was honored at last year’s festival with two documentaries about him.

It was interesting to learn that Mario Van Peebles went to Columbia University and majored in economics. At one point, he worked for Mayor Ed Koch. “I single-handedly caused the fiscal crisis of New York,” he said. I always tell high-school kids who want to go into film not to only go into film. There’s nothing worse you can do as an aspiring filmmaker than to close yourself off from the real world. How can anyone tell stories about the real world if you haven’t experienced the real world, if you know nothing but film? Mario said his father made a point to make sure he didn’t study film in school but that he learned something that would be valuable to him as a person and as a filmmaker.

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