June 6, 2004|Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971) is arguably the most influential African-American film of the modern age, a zero-budget independent picture hailing back to a time in the early-Seventies when the term still meant something outside the studio boutique and the Weinstein brothers' Miramax Xanadu. The man behind the picture, writer/director/star Melvin Van Peebles, still has the sort of aura around him at the age of 72 that suggests just how good it is to be the king. A giant figure in any study of black popular culture (earning entire chapters in Donald Bogle's survey history Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film and Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara), Van Peebles has interviewed Malcolm X, borrowed money from Bill Cosby, been nominated for three Grammys, won an Emmy, written a few books, collected no fewer than eleven Tony nominations, and received the French Legion of Honor. A kind of socio-political renaissance man, then, Van Peebles is still best known in the United States as the director of a curious little exploitation film that became, for a time, not only the highest-grossing independent picture in history, but also a polarizing force in spawning a race dialogue in American cinema, with an entire genre, Blaxploitation, flowering briefly in the aftermath of its release. Not a solution by any means, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song represents a great start--the hope now that filmmakers like Antoine Fuqua, the Hughes Brothers, and Spike Lee can begin to/continue to bear up against the slings and arrows, the siren's call allure, of outrageously offensive mainstream fluff. (For a victim of temptation, look no further than John Singleton.)
I sat down with Melvin Van Peebles and his son, triple-threat Mario Van Peebles, on the eve of the release of Baadasssss!, the son's adaptation of the father's book about the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Both decked out in Baadasssss! skull caps and both sporting the steely-eyed glare of doing things the hard way, they were ready and willing to talk about the state of our cinematic state. We compared notes from our respective front lines in a perpetual cultural war, a battle far from won in film or any other media and, in my darkest moments, one that I believe to be ultimately un-winnable. The truth is in the fighting: the difference between Nelson Mandela in prison and Nelson Mandela as president--making any sort of resolution outside of open conversation and debate slippery to say the least.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So, where's that sexually viable Asian badass in American movies?
MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (laughs) You might be it, man.
MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Yep. We're not even having that dialogue in American movies right now, and we never have had that dialogue--Mario opens the movie with clips of how not just blacks, but all races are treated in the popular cinema. I had in mind when I was making Sweetback that I would use an all-nations crew, outside of the union by necessity--price--but also by ideology, and I wanted to do it because in my mind the film was to be a voice of all the people marginalized in Hollywood.
Not just marginalized, but exploited as well.
MARIO: Totally agree. Paul Rodriguez said something similar, y'know. He said that Sweetback was a beginning not just for blacks in American film, but a beginning for all of us. I mean you look at it, you have Hop Sing, you have the Mexican banditos, you have the scared servants. What Melvin tried to do and what I tried to emulate was this idea of all flavours. I wanted to show the collective effort that it takes to make any worthwhile endeavour: if you deny the contribution of even one group, the big picture gets a lot duller. Pride, you have to take pride in it.
MELVIN: If you look, man, you can see the emergence of the new nigger in Hollywood, you can see it coming from a mile away. American Indians were it for a while, now Asians, and now Arabs--soon as it happens, you can feel the climate shift, it's a reflection in the movies of how a lot of America feels. No surprise who it is we go to war with here or abroad, it's people who we can comfortably make fun of in movies and nobody says "boo."
There's an amazing amount of resistance to even the idea of racism in films, which, in itself, is racist in a paternalistic sort of way.
MARIO: (laughs) That's right, that's right. I read a hundred reviews of a movie that's blatantly, patently offensive and ninety-nine of them just sit there talking about how much fun the movie is, or if it's not fun, at least it doesn't do any harm. That's some scary shit right there. You know, the only time that dialogue is heard isn't in the making of it, but in the success of it--not when my dad made Sweetback or when I made New Jack City, but when they made money. Nobody cares a thing for what you say until you prove you can help then turn a dollar. The secret is for Asian filmmakers, all filmmakers of colour, to get a foot in that door, to prove their viability.
Tell me what you think of Denzel Washington avoiding love scenes with white actresses.
MARIO: (laughs) Let me answer that in this way. You know what was really interesting to me was Chow Yun-Fat being paired with Mira Sorvino in that Replacement Killers movie, I was thinking that here was a watershed, man, you got a sexy man with a sexy woman and now we're gonna see the impact of the Hong Kong cinema on Hollywood. But that was that, nothing came of it.
The world's shortest movement, and now Jackie Chan is Owen Wilson's and Chris Tucker's spanking boy.
MARIO: (laughs) Yep.
MELVIN: There was a sex scene with Denzel in Devil in a Blue Dress, but, technically she was a sister. Yeah, it's disappointing.
MARIO: You have to try to keep things real, I think, and when you deny chemistry because of race or whatever, you start to operate in something like a fantasy--a hypocritical fantasy. Just talking about me, in that werewolf flick I was in, Full Eclipse, I get with Patsy Kensit. In Posse I'm with Sally Richardson, in Baadasssss! it's Nia Long. It's not a racial hot-button, it's a beautiful woman, and if she thinks I'm a good-looking man then it's only natural, right? You deny that and you make it more of an issue than not.
New Jack City actually has a positive, sexy Asian lead.
MARIO: (laughs) Russell Wong, man. When he walked in I thought to myself, "Wait a minute, I thought I had a hard time getting taken seriously as a leading man?" and I hired him on the spot. I mean, look, there was more to it than that, Russell's a talented actor and a helluva good looking guy, leading man material for sure, you look at him and he's a cop and Judd Nelson should be his partner. This is New York, man, it's not Yonkers. And we didn't do that gong and wood flute when he walks into a room. I didn't hear no gong and wood flute when you walked into the room.
MELVIN: And the key is to do it without comment--you comment on that and suddenly it's a black film, or an Asian film, or a Mexican film.
MARIO: You do it without comment and you say that you believe that these people can exist outside of the racial mold that this culture is raised with. People defend their racist shit all the time by saying that they know people who are the Asian grocer or dry cleaner, or the black drug dealer, or the Mexican car-jacker and low-rider--but when that's the predominant or only vision we ever get from the movies of these racial groups, that presents a very one-sided, misleading, and offensive picture of minority life. We're not all sidekicks and comic relief, or bad guys...
Kung-fu master mentors, Native American children of the earth...
MARIO: (laughs) Exactly.
Melvin, you weren't pleased with Blaxploitation, one of the major consequences of your film.
MELVIN: Yeah, it's true that I was disappointed in the direction of that genre as a movement. Think about that Shaft was the movie that saved MGM, after Sweetback did its business--they turned around this white-guy script and made it into a black guy script. I mean listen seriously, the only colour in Hollywood is green and they were seeing a lot of green after my movie took in all that money. But what was missing is that you'd watch Sweetback with an audience and they were just dead silent--they were stunned, man. You could hear a rat pissing on cotton. Blaxploitation took that political message and suppressed it, they made it a caricature, and where before coloured folks in pictures were either acting the fool or singing, now they were just acting out the new anti-hero stereotypes. We traded in one thing for another thing, some more of the same.
Interesting thing is that Beverly Hills Cop was written for Sylvester Stallone, but with Eddie Murphy, it suddenly took on some social significance.
MELVIN: It can happen that way with a performer like Murphy in his prime, just the fact of him used to be political.
It's a powerful message in Baadasssss! about solidarity and activism--despite the setbacks and the continued struggles, how do you explain the gains made by African-Americans in film beyond the gains of other minority groups?
MARIO: It's got something to do with slavery, I think. Here we are, taken from our homes and shipped over here against our will, and somewhere along the line we forgot what tribes we belonged to so we became, over here, the lost tribe of North America. There's a real unity forged there, knowing that all of us, whoever we were before, became something new with that one terrible thing in common--so that when we see another black person, we think of them in fraternal terms: brother, sister. And you fight that much harder for your family. Go back to Africa, though, and all the tribes are still fragmented, still fighting each other, sometimes butchering each other--there's all this cultural in-fighting, and I'm thinking that the Asian community, for as large as it is, still retains its cultural identity independent of the United States, so that all that in-fighting is still intact. Instead of one united front, y'all are coming from a hundred different perspectives.
MELVIN: There's power in unity for sure, and things can get done when you're unified.
MARIO: Look here, the Japanese own Columbia--why aren't there at least two movies a year with a positive Asian character?
What's the connection between the Asian cinema and the black community? I know that they showed up for martial arts imports in high numbers in the Seventies.
MELVIN: I think that's an interesting question, y'know, I believe that the black audience is more democratic in terms of its choices--not seeing those movies as products of a minority culture, but rather as perhaps compatriots doing something as a majority in their culture that we were shut out of in ours. We were not as ruled by the idea that if I don't understand something, then it must be wrong, and a lot of white viewers complaining about the dialogue being garbled or the story being hard to follow--we were ready to give a benefit of a doubt.
MARIO: There's also the thought that a lot of those Asian martial arts epics coming over around that time were ultra-violent revenge fantasies: one guy gets his family murdered and then spends the rest of his life making the ruling party pay. It was, it is, a real intoxicating fantasy, and I think that Sweetback--and, to an extent, Baadasssss! too--reflects that desire to overcome injustice, to channel rage hopefully into something more productive, like making a movie, but to be driven by a desire to distinguish yourself in a culture that has, historically, disliked you.
It comes from dislike, sure, but I'm going to offer that it's more born of discomfort, that's why blacks and the "new n-words" in film are so often comic relief, or the villain or sidekick with a bullet with their name on it.
MARIO: You're right on with that. When I went to Hollywood about twenty years ago, I asked my dad if he'd help make me a star.
MELVIN: I said "yeah" and I cut a star out of a piece of paper and gave it to him.
MARIO: (laughs) He did that, but he also gave me a piece of advice: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like a dog and advertise." But I went out without a real clear idea of how I was going to get to where I wanted to be--I went and looked all the black folks then with any kind of cinematic clout: Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby--all of them wonderful, brilliant, great, and all of them making the dominant culture laugh. You want a funny guy for Major League, hey, get Wesley Snipes. You want a funny guy for Heartbreak Ridge, hey, they got me--but it's dangerous, it's uncomfortable, when you want to get serious. I didn't want to be the funny guy or the best friend, or dead--
MELVIN: Cut down in the last reel--
MARIO: And I realized that what I had to do was get behind the camera--to take control of my image. I did New Jack City with that in mind that I was going to make a movie in the New York City that I knew, not the one that Woody Allen knows. And I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't reactionary--I didn't want to do to the white characters what the black characters always had done to them, that kind of thing is counterproductive, at the least. What I wanted was to be true to what I felt was right, not be a reflection of what I knew to be wrong.