It’s payback time

Mario Van Peebles offers an inside look at the film that started blaxploitation

Niels Strandskov

Film directors may be some of the most unreliable narrators around, especially when the narrative involves themselves.

“BAADASSSS!” is a story told by two narrators, Melvin Van Peebles, the director and star of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” and his son Mario Van Peebles (who also acted in “Sweetback”) plays his father in his retelling of the making of that original blaxploitation film. Given each man’s ego, investment in the “Sweetback” myth and desire to make “BAADASSSS!” an interesting story, historical accuracy is readily sacrificed for any number of reasons.

But accuracy is overrated anyway. No one would watch a film that accurately recorded the million and one frustrations of filmmaking. Much better to gloss over the downtime and focus on the few moments of horror and humor that go into making a movie.

“BAADASSSS!” is set in the early 1970s, when both the process of filmmaking and race relations were somewhat less polite and less complicated. Melvin Van Peebles was at that time an up-and-coming young director whose desire to reflect the goals of black militancy on film predictably clashed with the conservative studio system.

After making “Watermelon Man,” a comedy about a white bigot who wakes up black, the elder Van Peebles had a three-picture deal with Columbia and plenty of contacts in official Hollywood. Unfortunately for his career, he couldn’t bring himself to make a “safe” comedy that would cement his reputation and make money for the studios.

Instead he went outside the studios for funding and made “Sweetback,” the story of a street hustler who turns revolutionary after killing two racist white cops.

“BAADASSSS!” divides its time between chronicling Van Peebles’ struggle to get his film made and the effects of his monomania on the people around him, not least on his son.

The film isn’t exactly a comedy, and it isn’t exactly political either, although there is plenty of humor and jabs at the racism Van Peebles encountered from a hostile Hollywood. Most of the jokes revolve around the “gonzo” style of filmmaking that a chronic shortage of cash forced the director to adopt.

In one of the most ironic scenes in the film, Van Peebles’ multiracial crew is arrested by racist cops because they assume that the cameras and other equipment is stolen. This is also the occasion for one of the film’s many polemics when Melvin (played by Mario) chews out his producer Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson) for wanting to visit the crew in jail to keep their spirits up. Van Peebles’ paranoid, but probably realistic argument is that either he or the hippy Harris would certainly be arrested as well if they showed up at the jail.

Too many of the other jokes are told at the expense of women, Jews, fat people and gays. Unfortunately, Mario Van Peebles also plays many of the interactions between the blacks and whites on the crew for laughs. Certainly, there’s room for acknowledging difference and the humor therein, but a lot of the gags in “BAADASSSS!” cross the line from libratory satire to exploitative mockery.

Is this an accurate description of what it was like to make an independent movie that Hollywood didn’t want to see made? Perhaps, but given the obvious preponderance of dramatic license that the Van Peebles’ grant themselves in retelling their story, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that the politics of “BAADASSSS!” reflect the progress that has been made in the cause of freedom since 1971.