If you want to see what Melvin Van Peebles went through to make the movie that spawned Independent Black Cinema—and, ironically, the “Blaxploitation” genre exemplified by Shaft, Superfly and Foxy Brown—go see his son’s BAADASSSSS! (A.k.a. Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss). Mario Van Peebles co-produces, directs and stars as his father, Melvin, in BAADASSSSS!, which is based on the book Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, written by Melvin just after he made the movie with the same name. “I wrote the book because I figured that no one would believe what happened. Plus, in case I got rubbed out in the process, my children would at least have a chance to learn where I was coming from,” says Melvin. The book became a best seller, has been translated into several languages and is now a standard in university film classes.
In BAADASSSSS!, Mario portrays his father’s struggle to raise money to fund Sweetback under the guise of creating a Black porno film. Melvin ducks creditors and the unions, and even has to bail out his camera crew after they are arrested because a white policeman decided that “a bunch of Negroes and hippies couldn’t have come by that camera equipment honestly.” He endures death threats and temporary loss of sight in one eye, but manages to whip into shape a ragtag, multiracial crew and finish the film.
Although only two theaters in the entire country initially would play Sweetback, the film became the top-grossing independent hit of 1971. It had a winning formula: a hip, empowered Black lead and a driving, energetic soundtrack, with music from the then up-and-coming band Earth, Wind and Fire. “Melvin took on the Hollywood machine on his own terms and changed the game,” says Ossie Davis, who plays Grandad in BAADASSSSS! Davis was one of the few active Black directors when Sweetback was made.
Never before had a film dared depict a Black man standing up to “the man” and living to tell about it. “They copied the formula,” says Mario, referring to the Blaxploitation films that followed. Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire contributed new music to BAADASSSSS!
The cast of BAADASSSSS! also includes David Alan Grier (TV’s King of Texas, Life with Bonnie); Joy Bryant (Antwone Fisher, Showtime); Nia Long (Big Momma’s House, The Best Man); Paul Rodriguez (Tortilla Soup, TV’s Comic Relief VIII); Saul Rubinek (The Contender, Dick); Khleo Thomas (Holes); Glenn Plummer (The Salton Sea, Pastime); Karimah Westbrook (Save the Last Dance); Khalil Kain (The Tiger Woods Story, Execution of Justice); Rainn Wilson (Almost Famous, TV’s Six Feet Under); John Singleton (2 Fast 2 Furious, Boyz N The Hood) and Adam West (TV’s Batman, Family Guy). The film was written by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty.