Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Screenplay : Melvin Van Peebles
MPAA Rating : X
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Melvin Van Peebles (Sweetback), Simon Chuckster (Beetle), Hubert Scales (Mu-Mu), John Dullaghan (Commissioner), Rhetta Hughes (Old Girl Friend), Mario Van Peebles (Young Sweetback), John Amos (Motorcycle Guy)
Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" was a watershed moment in the history of American cinema and the black movement. It was released less than a decade after the Civil Rights Movement had begun and almost twenty years before the Rodney King incident. Its violent and highly sexualized revenge tale of a macho black hustler fighting back against white oppression and winning was something that had never been seen on an American movie screen before. In style, content, and how it was conceived and produced, "Sweet Sweetback" was a cinematic revolution, whether or not one agrees with its subject matter.
Van Peebles, a black American who first gained recognition by writing novels in France, built "Sweet Sweetback" from the ground up almost entirely by himself. Because no studio would dare fund such a film, he was forced to raise all the money himself. The movie ended up costing about $500,000, part of which was put up by none other than Bill Cosby. Van Peebles cut costs by hiring non-union labor and taking on most of the film's responsibilities himself. He wrote the script, scored the music, edited and directed the film, as well as starred in the central role.
He was also a brilliant entrepreneur who always found a way to make an extra buck. For instance, when the MPPA slapped the film with a dreaded X-rating, Van Peebles not only threatened to bring a lawsuit against Jack Valenti and the MPAA, but he also developed a little marketing scheme: he coined the phrases "Rated X by an all-white jury," which he put on the movie posters to help advertise the film. He also printed the phrase on tee-shirts which he had no problem selling.
The storyline in "Sweet Sweetback" is deceptively simple. It takes place in Los Angeles, and Van Peebles stars as the title character, a tough male hustler of few words who grew up in a brothel, and makes money by doing what he does best: having sex. One day, he agrees to go with a couple of amiable white cops down to the station to make it look like they're bringing in suspects on a politically-charged case involving murder. However, on the way to the station the cops arrest a young black revolutionary named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), who they proceed to beat viciously. Acting out of complete impulse rather than political motivation, Sweetback fights back and beats the cops to the brink of death.
The rest of the film follows Sweetback as he evades the cops on his way to eventual escape in Mexico. Although the repetition of watching Sweetback run gets a little old by the end of the film, this plot allows Van Peebles' camera to roam the darker side of L.A. -- the ghettos, alleys, and back-street whorehouses that other films had always overlooked.
Van Peebles' entire point in making the movie was to secure on celluloid a vision of the black experience in America that other filmmakers had ignored. At the beginning of "Sweet Sweetback," he offers this epigraph, which is a traditional prologue used in medieval times when a messenger brought bad news: "Sire, these lines are not an homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality..." Van Peebles wanted to make sure that his vision was one of reality, not of exaggeration.
Of course, with today's abundance of rap and hip hop music that sings the same ode to black inner-city life, as well as films by Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers, "Sweet Sweetback" doesn't seem all that revolutionary. It is important to remember that this film must be viewed in the context and time period in which it was made. At that time, "Sweet Sweetback" was so controversial that only two theaters in the entire United States would play it. Distributors were petrified of a film that, in Van Peebles' words, gave the black audience "a chance to see some of their own fantasies acted out -- about rising out of the mud and kicking ass."
Of course, once it caught on, it caught on big. "Sweet Sweetback" is now considered to be the film that kicked off the blaxploitation era, although Van Peebles disassociates "Sweetback" from other movies like "Shaft" (1972) and "The Mack" (1973), because those were financed by big Hollywood studios. "Sweet Sweetback" is also the only film deemed mandatory viewing by the Black Panthers.
However, even if when viewed from an African-American perspective, "Sweet Sweetback" is certainly not without its controversies. When it was first released, an article was published in "Ebony" magazine denouncing the film, while at the same time the Black Panthers used an entire newsletter to praise it.
There have been arguments that the victory for Sweetback is really no victory at all -- beating cops and then running away to Mexico is nothing to be proud of. Others have pointed out that Sweetback has little to say throughout the film; he has no political motivations, and therefore the violence and havoc he wreaks is not rooted in fundamental beliefs, but in personal and selfish motives. Still others point to the cliché black potency that stereotypes Sweetback as being good at nothing but having sex, illustrated in a scene where he gains the respect of a white biker group by bringing their female leader to orgasm.
Nevertheless, a movie like "Sweet Sweetback" cannot be made without conflicting points of view. It is a revolutionary movie not because it's about one man's defiance, but because it put front-and-center black issues that had never been dealt with before. Until that point, American cinema was an almost exclusively white domain, and with the exception of Sidney Poitier, all black actors were relegated to specifically black roles that were important only in relation to whites. The fact that "Sweet Sweetback" was a movie by black about blacks, was something new (in the opening credits, Van Peebles lists the starring actors as simply "The Black Community").
Van Peebles tells an interesting story that goes a long way toward defining the difference between "Sweet Sweetback" and all movies that had come before it. When the movie first opened, he saw it in a theater next to an older woman. Near the end of the film, when Sweetback is wounded by the police and stumbling through the Southern California desert, she kept saying to herself, "Oh Lord, let him die. Don't let them kill him. Let him die on his own." It was so ingrained in her mind that death was imminent for any African-American in a movie who rebelled against white authority, that she couldn't even conceive of the possibility that the film might end with his successful escape. And, of course, Sweetback does escape, and the screen fills with the message: "Watch out! A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues."
Beyond the political aspects, "Sweet Sweetback" is an entertaining picture, which Van Peebles always intended it to be. He squeezed every drop out of his limited budget, and produced a film that, although dated now, was technically fantastic at the time. He shot in rough, documentary-like fashion, while also utilizing almost every visual and aural trick his technology would allow him. He makes good use of older techniques like split screens, freeze frames, reversed color schemes, and overlapping images. The only time the film ever looks bad is during the night sequences, because Van Peebles simply did not have the needed equipment.
Watching "Sweet Sweetback" more than twenty-five years after its initial release, one realizes that it still has bite. Arguments can be made that race relations in the United States have made quantum leaps since the early seventies, but there are still problems that are reflected in this film. But there is more to the film than its racial aspect. The legacy of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is not only the plentiful amount of art and music told from the African-American perspective, but more importantly, the work of every artist who has fought to fund and produce that which is important to him.
©1998 James Kendrick