Melvin Van Peebles was a Renaissance man. Known best for his groundbreaking 1970s films, the independent film director also wrote screenplays and plays, acted in a number of films, and composed music. At one point in his life, he even intended to pursue astronomy. Van Peebles was a worldly man, his debut feature film shot in France, and he spent time living in Mexico and the Netherlands during his 20s. Our Retrospective Roundtable this month celebrates his accomplishments in cinema from his breakout feature debut The Story of a Three-Day Pass to his blaxploitation opus Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to his later work. Van Peebles passed away last month on the 22nd, but one thing for certain is his bold cinema will continue to live on for many, many years.
The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)
By Eugene Kang
Because of the great difficulty Melvin Van Peebles faced to find anyone to sponsor his art in the United States, he went to France to become a writer. His French-language novel La Permission about a Black soldier who is granted a three-day leave before his big promotion and spends it with a White French woman was popular enough that he was able to get funding to adapt it into a film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass. Three-Day Pass is a rough film that definitely feels like a director’s first film. There is a real thirst to prove itself with its flashy techniques that are heavily inspired by the popular French New Wave films of the time. When Turner (Harry Baird) first sees a woman he is attracted to (not Miriam (Nicole Berger), the woman he will eventually spend his three days with), there is an extended fantasy sequence of the whirlwind romance that he imagines that he will have with her.
Yet underneath the style, there is also considerable substance. Even though there are few overtly dramatic moments, Three-Day Pass manages to examine how Turner still feels like a second-class citizen even though he is in a country that is far more progressive in racial equity than the United States was at that time. Peebles is very aware of how problematic this relationship could be when he has Miriam imagine Turner as an African native when he first attempts to make love to her, a self-imagined White sacrificial lamb. However, much of the film is simply capturing the relationship between Turner and Miriam and how precious it is that they have this time together, but how heavily the outside world weighs on them and how different that experience is for them based on their race and gender. This may have been Van Peebles’ first film, but already he was considering the tenuous status of Black people in the world and exploring it in complex and imaginative ways.
Watermelon Man (1970)
By Alex Sitaras
There is little to like about Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge). He’s loud, crude, and worst of all, a racist. Jeff lives his life with barely-veiled contempt for the “uppity” Blacks and their Civil Rights Movement that occupies his family’s television when his wife has control of the remote. Ignorance does not seem bliss in the slightest – it seems painful. Jeff’s life comes to a turning point when he wakes up one morning and discovers he’s Black. Forced into confronting racial stereotypes and accusations firsthand, Jeff can no longer hide behind the veneer of his cozy suburban home. Instead, his neighbors vy to expel him from his home, citing decreased property values if it becomes known a Black person lives in their neighborhood.
Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man is a wildly creative work, preceding films such as Get Out that prompt the audience to look at themselves and subliminal racism that’s ingrained in culture and everyday conversation. Though the film has aged a little, it’s still a thoughtful comedy that shows something akin to what it’s like to live within a Black person’s skin. Jeff’s ignorance melds into understanding over the course of Watermelon Man as he comes to realize the implications of being Black in America. To top it off, as a comedy, it’s hilarious to see Jeff’s anguish upon his realization that fateful morning and his increasingly absurd and desperate attempts to find household remedies and skincare products to restore his Whiteness.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
By Ben McDonald
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is often credited as one of the first works of “blaxploitation”, a subgenre of exploitation films that featured and was initially marketed to African Americans, often dealing with subjects related to Black oppression. On paper, Melvin Van Peebles’ film certainly fits the description of the genre it would inspire, centered around a Black protagonist played by Van Peebles himself running from the law after he beats two police officers into comas upon witnessing them brutalize a Black Panther. But in practice, Sweet Sweetback’s is truly its own film, a singular work that is at once righteously furious, psychedelically absurd, and totally invigorating. Underscored by a jazzy soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire and edited with an overabundance of jump-cuts, disorienting fades, and still images, the film has a real rhythm and aesthetic confidence, all in service of elevating its otherwise rather minimal plot and conveying its proud, anti-establishment tone. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is miraculously somehow both artistically relentless and also a movie aimed at being a commercial product, a film that features horrific violence and casual racism against Black Americans and is yet, in Van Peebles’ own words, “victorious”. I’ve surely never seen anything quite like it, but it’s absolutely piqued my interest in exploring more of this late American auteur’s work.
Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973)
By Eugene Kang
Filmed stage productions can often be staid and uninteresting, but leave it to Van Peebles to find ways to make his Tony Award-nominated musical dynamic in visuals and storytelling. The premise of the play is already an odd one: two devil bats named Trinity (Joe Keyes Jr.) and Brother Dave (Avon Long) seek to break up a house party in Harlem that Miss Maybell (Esther Rolle) is throwing in honor of her niece Earnestine’s (Rhetta Hughes) birthday. Their efforts to thwart the party are comically thwarted. Trinity tries to drink all the liquor and eat all the sandwiches only to discover that the house party has more than enough supplies. Apparently, Van Peebles based this on a real house party that he attended. Van Peebles also edits his film to focus on individual characters and convey the chaotic nature of the party while including some low-grade but fun special effects such as Trinity and Brother Dave’s transformations. The play is definitely shaggy, especially if you are more used to slick Broadway productions. In the end, Don’t Play Us Cheap ends up feeling more like we are peeking into a house party that just happens to take a slightly supernatural turn, and it is fascinating as a small peek into Black life during this time period.
Gang in Blue (1996)
By Alex Sitaras
Melvin Van Peebles and his son Mario Van Peebles co-direct and star in Gang in Blue, one of the elder Van Peebles’ later works. Mario plays the role of Michael Rhodes, a Black police officer within a predominantly White (and racist) police department, while his father plays the role of Andre Speier, a parent figure to Rhodes who offers him guidance and is one of the few men who Rhodes can trust. The film also stars a young Josh Brolin as a new cop who becomes integral in Rhodes’ work to uncover the police department’s darker secrets.
Gang in Blue opens with a police raid of a gambling den off of a fake tip from an Asian accent-imitating cop from a pay phone. They didn’t receive their cut. We see instantly the corruption of this police force and know Rhodes is in an uphill battle for any sort of justice. To make matters worse, new young White police officers frequently join the force, and racism and police brutality is normalized as they become indoctrinated to the cops’ routines. After his White partner stays back at the car rather than go with Rhodes to respond to a lead, Rhodes realizes he is set up when he draws an empty gun. He knows something is amuck, and only has a limited amount of time to determine what before his work kills him.