Death of director Melvin Van Peebles, father of Blacksploitation

A very important pioneer figure in Blacksploitation and father of actor Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles has died at the age of 89.

Death of director melvin van peebles, father of blacksploitation
YT screenshot

Actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and above all a pioneer in the cinema of the Blacksploitation to whom we owe the classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song released in 1971 or Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles died this Tuesday at the age of 89 at his home in Manhattan. Filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins hailed on Twitter the death of a “pioneer”. Spike Lee on his side declares himself “deeply affected by the loss of [son] brother Melvin Van Peebles, who brought independent noir cinema to the fore […]”.

It was his son, actor – director Mario Van Peebles, who broke the news in a statement: “Dad knew black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? […] True liberation did not mean having to emulate the mentality of the colonizer. It meant appreciating the strength, the beauty and the connection between all individuals ”.

The quintessential American publisher-distributor and movie buff, Criterion, promptly saluted the memory of Melvin Van Peebles:

During an unparalleled career characterized by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles has left an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and his music”.

French period

Born August 21, 1932 in Chicago, the man nicknamed “The Godfather of Black Cinema” landed in Hollywood a bit by chance. Wishing to become a director, he began by tinkering with a few short films at the end of the fifties. Invited by the Cinémathèque française who wanted to screen his short films, Melvin moved to Paris. Learning French, he was even hired to translate the magazine Mad in French, and also contributes to the magazine Hara-kiri.

Writing plays in French and some short stories, he ends up adapting one of them, which will be his very first film: La Permission, in 1968. The story of a black GI on leave for three days in Paris, where he meets Miriam (Nicole Berger), and falls under his spell, before racial prejudices get involved.

It is with this film as a calling card, shot for a budget of $ 70,000, that Melvin Van Peebles can sign his first American film for a large studio, Columbia, with Watermelon man. In this rereading of Metamorphosis from Kafka, a deeply racist white man wakes up one beautiful dark morning. Played by the black comedian Godfrey Cambridge, the character will gradually accept his new identity before joining the Black Panther. A ferocious satire, quite brilliant, whose political purpose is still relevant today.

Here is the trailer …

The turning point of Blacksploitation

Genre that has been able to revalue the image of the African-American community, which presented them in dignified and leading roles, and no longer only in secondary roles, of foil or quite simply devaluing, as Hollywood did during several decades, the Blacksploitation put an end to the unique model of integration of the black community into the film industry, embodied until then by Sidney Poitier.

In this context, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song of Melvin Van Peebles was like a bomb when he came out. Financed in particular by a loan of $ 50,000 from Bill Cosby for a total budget of $ 100,000, the film brought in about 10 million greenbacks.

To orchestrate the publicity around his film, Melvin Van Peebles had the genius to put forward the soundtrack (an idea very little used at the time), by calling on the music group Earth, Wind and Fire, thus creating the alliance between black music and cinema. One of the great peculiarities of the Blacksploitation is that many of his films had brilliant soundtracks: almost all the great black musicians of the 1970s composed soundtracks of these films, such as James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers …

Below is the trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song:

This work, the most famous of Melvin Van Peebles, was also selected last year to join the prestigious Library of Congress of the United States, given its cinematographic and historical importance.

In 1972, he continued with another success, the musical Don’t Play Us Cheap!, which he will adapt for the Broadway boards. It will also be cited three times for a Tony Award. A multi-faceted artist, he has also regularly appeared in front of the camera as an actor, notably with his son Mario, who will direct him in the western Posse, the revenge of Jessie Lee. He was also seen starring in the comedy Boomerang with Eddie Murphy, Terminal Velocity; Last Action Hero where he plays his own role; a guest role in the series Dream On, Redemption Road … In 2000, he was even contacted by Pascal Légitimus to play in his comedy Antille sur Seine. His last appearance on the screen is precisely a film signed by his son, Armed, not yet released in France; a thriller in which an ex US Marshall is grappling with a vast conspiracy.

“I’m making a movie like I’ll cook for friends. I hope they like it. But if they don’t, I’m ready to enjoy it on my own!” said not without jokes the one who allowed a whole generation of black directors to force the doors of Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. So long the artist …

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