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Friday, Oct. 14, 2005
1970s BLAXPLOITATION REVISITED
A funky tale about busting taboos
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the sexedelic blaxploitation classic from 1971, opens with a sex scene. In it, we see the hero, Sweetback, as a young boy -- played by director Melvin Van Peebles' then 13-year-old son, Mario -- as he's beckoned to a bordello room by a much older prostitute. He then, as they say in classic rock songs, learns what it is to be a man.
Some three decades later, Mario Van Peebles -- himself a director and actor in his own right -- has made a film in which he plays his dad, Melvin, in a docudrama on the incredibly turbulent making of "Sweet Sweetback."
One of the scenes he has to play is when he orders his son Mario, a tender type, to do the sex scene and -- even worse -- to cut his beloved afro.
Oedipal enough for you yet? It gets better, but truly the best thing about "Baadasssss!" is how Mario's take on his dad is neither payback nor puff-piece. He shows the man's determination to get the film made "by any means necessary," and while that's clearly an admirable thing, he's not afraid to show his megalomaniac side -- punching out an editor or jiving a female acquaintance into doing a sex scene on camera.
Films about the making of films usually, with few exceptions, turn into wanky, self-absorbed affairs. "Baadasssss!," however, is a rare, good example of the genre, because, like "Hearts of Darkness," the "Apocalypse Now" doc, the story behind the camera is as gripping as the one in front.
To start with, Melvin -- after doing all right with his Kafka-esque Hollywood comedy, "Watermelon Man," in which a bigoted white man wakes up one morning to find himself black -- turned down a three-picture deal with Columbia. He decided to pursue his own vision of a film about "a real street brother," a male prostitute who saves a Black Panther from a vicious beating by two racist cops, killing both in the process. The hero would run and run, pursued by the cops and supported by the black community, finally getting away with it -- not the most acceptable idea at the time.
What followed was a battle from beginning to end, as the director struggled to find cast and crew and most of all money, while dealing with union thugs, heavy loan sharks, hippie flakes, failing eyesight and the arrest of most of his crew on spurious charges.
What emerges in "Baadasssss!" is a good portrait of the challenges involved and the sheer will power necessary to make a film independently. It's also a good portrait of the times (early 1970s), filled with revolutionary rhetoric, hippie happenings, the casual racism of the studios and an atmosphere of political paranoia. There are, of course, also plenty of choppers and 'fros and girls with names such as "Moonbeam."
In many ways, "Baadasssss!" is almost a superior film to its predecessor. "Sweetback," although still striking in its style, no longer packs the same taboo-busting impact as it did 30-plus years ago, which only serves to make its faults more noticeable: muddy sound, murky shots and an absurd plot (like when Sweetback challenges the "Big Mama" of a white biker gang to a duel by sex).
"Baadasssss!" does a good job of contextualizing its subject, though, and adds a new layer of interest to the original. The stories about how Melvin got the shot of torching a police car, or how it was comedian Bill Cosby -- now regarded as a hectoring conservative by some in the black community -- who came through with the bucks to save Melvin's radical film, make "Sweetback" seem like a pure triumph of the will.
But most of all, "Baadasssss!" trips along at a fresh, funky pace. Mario employs all the tropes of early '70s cinema, from psychedelic superimpositions to sun-flecked shots and lots of dissolves and showy zooms. The film is also often very funny, whether it's Melvin's hippie producer Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson) taking him to an "acid test" to meet the film's whacked-out principal financier, or Melvin hiring his cameraman on a porn set. ("Like they say, if you can make an ass look good, then faces are a snap.")
Excellent period piece, hip funky soundtrack, fascinating character study and a call-to-arms to makers and fans of would-be independent cinema, "Baadasssss" pretty much has it all. A cooler film you will not see this fall.