It is too easy to throw superlatives around when talking about filmmakers. Many directors with a decent enough filmography, who have been around long enough to be forgotten about can attain such a status. The recently passed Melvin Van Peebles, however, is one of the only American filmmakers who truly deserves every beautiful descriptive that is laid upon him. He was a bona fide renaissance man. Actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and composer – amongst other things, the man was a true artist. As an independent filmmaker, Van Peebles should be placed on the same pillars as white counterparts such as John Cassavetes or Roger Corman. The opening of this review is indeed hyperbolic, but this is due truly down to Van Peebles’ trailblazing efforts.
Without him, we do not receive the blaxploitation era (consider this Tarantino fans). More essentially, however, were it not for Van Peebles as The Godfather of Black Cinema, it’s difficult to see cinema having the likes of Spike Lee or the notable Black talent of the early ’90s, for which his son; Mario Van Peebles was a clear part of. Hell, we would not have seen Roger Moore cavorting with Jane Seymour and tackling Yaphet Kotto in “Live and Let Die.” His influence bleeds into so much cinematic DNA. One of the films in this new Criterion collection is the near sole creator of an entire ecosystem. No matter how one looks at Melvin’s controversial, sometimes divisive works, he is a key cog in the Black cinematic machine.
The revolutionary “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) is the movie Van Peeble’s that most attach to his name, and yet in watching this rich and full collection of movies, a viewer will see more strings to this man’s bow than the Blaxploitation lynchpin. Although that film still highlights its potent radicalism. Yet, it is through so much of Van Peebles’ ambitious vision each film we see the cornerstones of African-American cinema. With some rather impeccable, though unfortunate timing, giving his passing, we looked at Van Peebles’ essential films through the Criterion Collection‘s just released Melvin Van Peebles: The Essential Films box set. We actually have two copies of the box set to give away as we’ve extended the deadline for our contest, the details of which you can see here.
“The Story of The Three-Day Pass“
One of the more playful films in the collection. ‘The Three-Day Pass’ was made in France as it was easier for a Black filmmaker to get a film made overseas than in the U.S. Based on Van Peeble’s French novel ‘La Permission,’ the film tells the story of Black Army G.I (Harry Baird) given a three-day pass to explore France before taking on a coveted promotion. Bored of the typical sightseeing venues, he finds himself an in chic bar supping beers before inadvertently meeting eyes with a pretty, white shop clerk named Miriam. The couple decides upon spending the weekend together. Yet the complexities of their interracial fraternizing hang over the newly formed relationship.
A film which is both full of bountiful charm and close to the bone cynicism, ‘Three-Day Pass’ looks at the pitfalls of racial romance with the same type of sincere and difficult comprehension found in later films such as Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008), Ben Bond’s “The Drifters” (2017) and Justin John Doherty’s “Wilderness” (2021). One would not be surprised if Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991) took a certain number of thematic notes. From a technical perspective, Lee is certainly in debt to Van Peebles. Lee’s infamous Dolly Shot seems to have originated here, in a beautiful scene in which our protagonist glide through the crowded dance floor towards the white woman he has decided to make a beeline for. The scene only gets better as Van Peebles utilizes double exposure and fantasy to concoct what turns out to be a fanciful rug pull. It’s the strongest moment of a film that liberally embraces much of the techniques being used during the era of the French New Wave.
Something is illuminating about seeing Van Peebles as a first-time feature director circumvent budgetary limitations with almost the sheer will of his visual audacity. Punctuating a sweet and foreshadowing character-building monologue with a series of well-timed cuts, freeze frames, and music, highlighting the sexual ulterior motive behind the lusty G.I. Moreover, some of the framings of Nicole Berger are so wonderfully put together, that her allure feels more potent than many, more explicit scenes found in more contemporary features. The film, while rough around the edges, is filled with such charm that it’s difficult not to smile at such a sweet yet still relevant feature.
“The Watermelon Man“
From its taunting poster, proudly proclaiming itself to be “The Uppity Movie” to its controversial conceit of an obnoxious white man who turns Black overnight, “The Watermelon Man” is a film that comes at its audiences all guns blazing. The adage that “you couldn’t make this movie today” is a near truth here. The “race swap” movie has been attempted more than a couple of times since “The Watermelon Man’s” 1970 release, but rarely is it ever cooked to the right temperature.
Feeling much like the link that connects such films as “Get Out” (2017) and “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987), Watermelon Man is not as interested in the more overt bigotry targets. Klan members are a touch too easy to pick at. Although the film does highlight them. The film is far more enamored with subversive jabs at the supposedly well-meaning white liberals of the ’60s. Many of the film’s moments should still hold potency with a modern audience today. Especially in a social media era in which many wave their social justice labels on the many platforms with the air of superiority. If it were made today, ‘Watermelon Man’ would be setting sights on the same guys who believe a black tile on their Instagram profiles will cure racism.
Originally a studio film that wanted Jack Lemmon in its lead role. ‘Watermelon Man’ was seeking to have a pat-on-the-head moral ending in which the obnoxious Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) suddenly learns the error of his bigoted ways. Van Peebles’ vision of the film is a far stronger idea. Cambridge first starts the film in garish whiteface, an act which only makes the obnoxious aspects of his personally stand out. Also, as the film grows darker, the film’s theme of accepting Black identity in the face of oppression becomes stronger.
The film is full of dark comedic winks towards racial attitudes, from Gerber’s ludicrous sporting “achievements” (outrunning a bus driven by a Black driver) to an amazing sequence involving a white European work colleague who fetishizes Gerber after he becomes Black. So much of the film works simply down to the fact it’s its willing to embrace subject matter that honestly feels too sensitive to touch these days. The fact that the film is wrapped in a brightly lit, multi-camera sitcom aesthetic only helps to be the icing on the cake.
Amusingly the film unconsciously highlights this writer’s disinterest in “diverse” franchise exercises. ‘Watermelon Man’ merrily attacks the superficial concerns that many white liberals entertain when viewing a Black cipher at a distance while dismissing real conversations about race that might make them uncomfortable. As Gerber’s wife (Estelle Parsons) states at one point “I’m liberal but to a point!” A throwaway line that speaks volumes.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song“
Van Peebles’ most known film is still his most transgressive. An early sequence involving Van Peeble’s son; Mario, would do more than raise eyebrows today. It’s a moment of effective storytelling that not only feels like an offcut extracted from Iceberg Slim’s biography but would effectively have a studio shut down production if they caught wind of what their director was doing.
The film which helped launch hundreds of imitators is aggressive, chaotic, and certainly ambitious. Yet, despite its scope, the unpolished aesthetic and hazy plotting diminishes some of its potency. This still doesn’t take away from the film’s anger and rage at “the man.” With the filmmaker originally finding difficulty in making the films he wanted in America at first, it should be of no surprise that this wholly independent chase movie would be the American film that made many stand up and discover him. Its premise of a Black prostitute on the run from white cops still holds the ability to strike a nerve.
“I want to show all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted,” Melvin Van Peebles mentions in the 2003 documentary, “Baadasssss!” which recounts the making and importance of the film. Sweet Sweetback’s main impetus is found within such a quote. Delivering us a Black anti-hero who exists in a struggling Black world which at the time was perhaps more recognized by the Black audience it was geared to than the sanitized, middle-class trappings of the likes of Sidney Poitier.
Sweetback (played by Van Peebles) may not be heavy on vocabulary but exudes a calm streetwise persona which, at the time, must have felt revolutionary in ways some filmmakers are only just catching up to. It’s a film that embraces chaos. Violent, wince-inducing beatings. A camera that zooms and pans with nervous energy. Like all of Van Peebles’ scores on these films, the music rings loud and proud. Yet despite its infamy and importance, it’s the films that come before Sweetback which now leave a stronger impression in terms of entertainment.
“Don’t Play Us Cheap”
Based on his stage play, 1972’s “Don’t Play Us Cheap” is perhaps the most ambitious feature of all the collection. Frustratingly, it’s the entry of the four that one desperately wishes had more investment, as the fantastical flights of fancy, and outpouring of Black joy, make this an absorbing yet flawed watch.
The film’s main conceit involves two devilish imps who take up human form and head to a party in Harlem to break it up. The task isn’t as easy as the imps would like it to be however as the film states “when Black folks throw a party, they don’t play!” The more impulsive of the two heads first only to find himself lovestruck by the hostess’ niece. Of course, this, among other things throw a spanner into the plan of the imps, while the party goers, unaware of the diabolical plan, do what they can to have the best damn Saturday night party they can.
The main struggle with “Don’t Play Us Cheap” is that its technical prowess. Say what you will about the bizarre, out-there story, but the performances, while unpolished are committed and fun. The problem lies in the fact that the music (Van Peebles best arrangement of the four films) and dialogue is often a struggle to hear as intended. Van Peebles saw Black people on a large creative spectrum and “Don’t Play Us Cheap” seems to be the clearest example. While the four films aren’t necessarily happy ones, every film strives to highlight their characters as more than vessels of Black trauma or one-note comic relief. So, the camera will zoom onto a character’s face in a close-up that’s perhaps tighter than needed. Yet, the joy which is expressed within the composition outstrips the awkwardness of the framing. There is a reckless abandon to the “conventional” rules of how to frame and block a film. And yet the sheer force of the intention is too strong to ignore.
A subplot about classism is brought up and mostly falls by the wayside, but it’s still fascinating to see Van Peebles try and explore the pretensions of certain social climbers within the community. What’s more interesting about “Don’t Play Us Cheap” is Van Peebles being less unorthodox with his editing rhythms and using what he can (tight close-ups, double exposure, fun music) to simply capture the most jubilant group of people from all four films. One can only wonder what the filmmaker could have done with a larger budget, as a film like this would only benefit from such investment. That said, watching “Don’t Play Us Cheap” in a triple bill with “House Party” (1990) and “To Sleep with Anger” (1990) would be an intriguing combination to enjoy.