sweet sweetback's baad assss song

Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song

Wil Forbis
February 1, 2005


Is "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" a masterpiece? Perhaps, if one reinterprets the term "masterpiece" to mean "works that are not masterpieces."

This is not to say that "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song", directed by urban guerilla filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, is a bad film, (though it is a Baad film.) And certainly it's historically important, as it is often listed as the first movie to usher in the blaxploitation cinema revolution of the 70's. It was this movement upon which Black Americans came forth and utilized the tools of moviemaking to tell their stories - stories of pimps and hookers and drugs dealers and young brothers trying to make it in a world where the man has all the power. Stories, like "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song", which relates the travails of a young sex performer (played by - you guessed it - Melvin Van Peebles!) who, in a fit of rage, assaults two cops, thereby becoming a wanted man who must live a life on the run. (Literally. Whole chunks of film show nothing more than Sweet running - in tunnels, through hallways, in forests, though deserts.) Along the way he kills a few more cops, has sex with several women including the female leader of a white motorcycle gang, kills some dogs, and then escapes into Mexico so suddenly one is forced to wonder whether Van Peebles simply ran out of film and had to wrap things up. (I realize I'm giving away the ending, but no discussion of "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" can be relevant without making note of its then controversial climax: The black man gets away with it! "SSBS" broke with the tradition of what Van Peebles described in a Tavis Smiley interview as "liberal, sort of nice movies where we always ended up dead at the end.")

But, as I delicately intimate above and we should just come out and say it - on a technical level "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" is utter fucking garbage. The plot is barely moved forward by Van Peebles endless montages of Los Angeles cityscapes or his lead character's minimalist dialogue. (I think the guy says no more than ten words in the film.) The trick photography and arty overexposure only serve to annoy. The pace of the film alternately stagnates and then leaps forward with cheetah-like velocity. And I defy you to find a single character in the film with a coherent believable motivation. (In one of the most baffling scenes, a white longhair fights with a Sheriff in a noble effort to keep the law from releasing hunting dogs on Sweet, but once the longhair loses the tussle he switches gears and jokes, "I guess it'll save the taxpayers money." Then both characters sit down and  - I'm not making this up - go to sleep.)

So why watch it? Because it's important? I say, nay, as I've been bored to tears by enough "important" films to last a lifetime. Because it's a film with a vital message of Black empowerment? Maybe, but Lord knows you could do better. (Try "Foxy Brown" or even "Action Jackson.") But the reason I recommend "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" is that it's simply an opportunity to see things you haven't seen on celluloid before.

"Sweet Sweetback." was released in 1971 and that should tell you all you need to know. With the advent of the 70's, the film industry was shaken to its core with a series of legal rulings that allowed for the capture of sexual acts on film. Well, gee, the average director on the street thought, If I can show people fucking, what can't I show? The lines that had been drawn in the sand were no more, and in a world without rules, American filmmakers either fumbled about, unsure how far they could go, or aggressively pushed the envelope. Consequently, the 70's was a period of wild experimentation in which directors showcased extreme violence (as with Wes Craven's "Last House of the Left" in which deviant hippies repeatedly rape and torture two teenage girls, only to eventually meet their doom at the hands of the girl's parents, including one scene where an attacker has his penis bitten of by the girl's mother.) and graphic sexuality (e.g. the entire porn industry.)

Melvin and Mario Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles, I think it can safely be said, was one of the envelope pushers. Hell, "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" opens with a scene of a young Sweet being initiated into sex with a 20-something woman. (And who plays this lucky little dickens? Why none other than Melvin's then 13 year old son, Mario van Peebles. Melvin has never given any indication that he considered the possible negative effects of having his own child perform what are essentially pornographic (and maybe illegal?) acts, stating in the aforementioned Tavis Smiley interview, "It obviously didn't hurt the boy.") From there on in, Van Peebles violates one unspoken rule of then-conventional Hollywood filmmaking after another. Sex acts are rampant and explicit in the numerous scenes of Sweet "making love" by lying motionless, almost disinterested, on a moaning, undulating woman. (Though no actual penetration is shown, it's strongly implied and the film won itself an X rating*.) About a third of way through we get to see a man get out of the shower sit down on the toilet and take a dump. Police, long the heroes of traditional cinema, are all portrayed as racist and completely unredeemable (as are all white people) and are killed without remorse. (Including a great scene where Sweet impales one with a pool cue. Had Van Peebles not been so adverse to dialogue he could have thrown in a great Schwarzeneggerian punch line like, "Eight ball, corner pocket you jive peckerwood!") Towards the end we are even treated to the sight of three utterly femme, out of the closet homosexuals who preen to the police while their eye shadow and mascara gleams in the sun. Throughout the film, Melvin makes clear, "This is not your daddy's motion picture!"

* The sex was real enough that Melvin actually got a case of gonorrhea while making the film.

It's legitimate, I think, to make a comparison between Van Peebles and groundbreaking 70's female director (and Acid Logic house favorite) Doris Wishman. Both suffered from a lack of technically skill- indeed they seemed predisposed to not be filmmakers - but they overcame their limitations with a combination of tenacity, ego and a single minded, uncompromising dedication to their vision. If Wishman wanted to make a spy movie about a women who smothers men to death with breast then goddamit! - she was going to make that movie. And if Van Peebles wanted to make a film about a black man who kills the man, fucks white bitches and gets away with it, then no one - least of all jive-ass honkeys - was going to stop him! (The making of "Sweet Sweetback." was chronicled in a docudrama written and starring Mario Van Peebles (a far more capable filmmaker than his father) released under the title "Badasssss" and, alternately, "How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass." I haven't seen it but it sounds very promising and at least in terms of narrative, far better structured than the film it documents.)

In light of the film's depravity and technically limitations it somewhat curious that "SSBAS" went on to start a minor cinematic revolution but that's exactly what it did. Black people, hungry for a film - any film - that offered a portrayal of themselves outside that of maids and dim witted criminals lined up around the block to see the movie. Consequently, the movie made $10,000,000 and caused Hollywood - then in a downward slump - to take notice. In pre-production, "Shaft" switched its lead character from white to black. Upon its success the Blaxploitation movement kicked into full swing and for the next decade hundreds of Black themed movies flooded the movie theaters of America. Onto this achievement perhaps one can ascribe a prophetic prescience to the warning that graced the final scene of "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song":Watch out! A BaadAsssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues!



1) Who is listed as having the starring role during the film's opening credits.

2) What Black celebrity actor gave Melvin Van Peebles a no-interest loan to complete his movie?

3) Melvin Van Peebles wrote the score to "Sweet Sweetback." What popular R&B supergroup performed it?

4) What does the black minister say he will do for Sweet in while he is on the run from the man?

5) True or False: Given the chance, would Sweet think twice about drilling your mother?

Answers Below... (no cheating.)











1) "The Black Community." 2) Bill Cosby 3) Earth Wind and Fire 4) Say a "Black Ava Maria." 5) Depends whether or not whether your mother is superfly or a funky-ass toothless bitch. Sweet's got standards you know.

Wil Forbis
is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at acidlogic@hotmail.com

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!


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