Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback, and Me

I finally saw the completed version of Melvin Van Peebles’ ground-breaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I didn’t see it when it was in theaters partly because I was a bit too young for X-rated movies. But mostly because I had already seen a rough cut.

When it hit theaters, Sweetback created a sensation. Here was a film that idealized black militants; that called for standing up against The Man. The Black Panthers praised it. And Van Peebles knew how to promote it, with posters proclaiming “RATED X BY AN ALL-WHITE JURY.”

For a low-budget, independent movie, it made a fortune. The film’s success hit a nerve. Shaft, Coffy, Super Fly, and even–God help us–Blacula soon followed.

So how did I, a white high school student, get to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song before it was ready for paying customers? Let me explain:

My stepfather, John (Hans) Newman was a sound effects editor at Columbia Pictures in 1970, when he was assigned to do the sound effects for Van Peebles’ first American feature, Watermelon Man. Van Peebles–Mel, as we called him–became a friend of the family. (Watermelon Man was only the second Hollywood studio film directed by a person of color.) [I corrected this paragraph on 2/3/2022]

By the time Mel was cutting Sweetback, Columbia had closed its sound editing department and Hans was freelancing. It was a foregone conclusion that he would cut the sound for Mel’s new, independently financed film.

When the movie was ready for sound editing, Mel arranged a screening of the workprint for Hans and Luke Wolfram–another sound editor who often worked with Hans. I was invited to attend the screening of what was still a work in progress.

How did I react to it back then? I thought it was pretty rough, but that’s to be expected in a rough cut. I don’t remember much else about my reaction, although I’m pretty sure I had the expected teenage reaction to all the sex and nudity.

So how did I like the final movie, seen 45 years later? It’s still awfully rough. Yes, it was daring and political. But it’s amateurishly shot, poorly edited, and badly acted (especially by Van Peebles, who starred as well as writing, directing, producing, and editing the film). The story becomes repetitious, and thus boring.

The story is little more than a chase. Sweetback (Van Peeples) performs in live sex shows until he sees two cops beating up a black militant. He reacts by attacking the cops. The rest of the film has him on the run.

It would have been much better if Mel had cast someone else in the lead. He was, at that time of his life, a very good-looking man–with or without clothes. But he couldn’t act. He shows the same blank face throughout the film. We don’t see his rage when he attacks the cops, or any other emotions.

Another thing: If your movie’s hero is supposed to be the world’s greatest lover–able to satisfy any woman–don’t cast yourself. It just makes you seem conceited.

Hans also worked on Van Peebles’ next film, Don’t Play Us Cheap. After that, they drifted apart. I don’t know why.

It’s reasonable to celebrate Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a daring and influential film, and one that told truth to power. But despite the family history, I can’t celebrate it as a good movie.

I saw the film (this time around) on Fandor.