Melvin Van Peebles (August 21, 1932 - September 21, 2021)
By Douglas Martin • Sept. 22, 2021 • The New York Times
The filmmaker, author and actor Melvin Van Peebles in his apartment in Manhattan in 2010.
Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker praised as the godfather of modern Black cinema and a trailblazer in American independent movies, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.
His death was announced by his son Mario Van Peebles, the actor and director.
A Renaissance man whose work spanned books, theater and music, Mr. Van Peebles is best known for his third feature film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which drew mixed reviews when it was released in 1971, ignited intense debate and became a national hit. The hero, Sweetback, starred in a sex show at a brothel, and the movie sizzled with explosive violence, explicit sex and righteous antagonism toward the white power structure. It was dedicated to “all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man.”
Mr. Van Peebles’s fiercely independent legacy can be seen in some of the most notable Black films of the past half-century, from Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) to Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” (2016). His death arrives at a moment when Black storytelling has belatedly become ascendant in Hollywood.
“I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” he told The New York Times in 2010, when asked about his reputation and influence. “I do what I want to do.”
Not only did Mr. Van Peebles write, direct and score “Sweet Sweetback’s” and play the lead role; he also raised the money to produce it. The film demonstrated that a Black director could convey a highly personal vision to a broad audience. “For the first time in cinematic history in America, a movie speaks out of an undeniable Black consciousness,” Sam Washington wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times.
In addition to making movies, Mr. Van Peebles published novels, in French as well as in English; wrote two Broadway musicals and produced them simultaneously; and wrote and performed spoken-word albums that many have called forebears of rap.
Over the course of his life he was also a cable-car driver in San Francisco, a portrait painter in Mexico City, a street performer in Paris, a stock options trader in New York, the navigator of an Air Force bomber, a postal worker, a visual artist and, by his own account, a very successful gigolo.
Mr. Van Peebles grandly called himself “the Rosa Parks of Black cinema.” Along with Gordon Parks, whose 1971 film “Shaft” lionized a streetwise Black detective, he was among the first Black filmmakers to reach a wide general audience.
“Sweetback,” “Shaft” and numerous knockoffs released throughout the 1970s were a response to a new militancy among young urban Black people. The movies’ casts were mainly Black, and the music was mainly funk and soul. Racial put-downs of whites were common, as were sex, violence and critiques of capitalism and police brutality. Many displayed a slick coolness. Some romanticized outlaws.
You can take a black guy to Nashville from right out of the cotton fields with bib overalls, and they will call him R&B. You can take a white guy in a pin-stripe suit who’s never seen a cotton field, and they will call him country. ~ O. B. McClinton