The Review/ Feature/
Cory Bowles Hears Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
The director behind TIFF '17's Black Cop was inspired by Melvin Van Peebles' "by-any-means" filmmaking
This piece was originally published in 2016 when TIFF screened a print of Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song. Our author Cory Bowles premieres his first feature Black Cop this year at TIFF '17. Here's Bowles on the impact Sweet Sweetback made on him as a young filmmaker:
“When did you folks start getting so interested in black folks, dead or alive?”
Let’s get one thing out of the way.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is not the first Blaxploitation Film.
It’s not a Blaxploitation Film.
When Melvin Van Peebles made his controversial and equally ass-kicking film in 1971, he wasn’t trying to bend to the rule of “the man.” There was no way this kid was going to change his direction because no studios would go near it, even with a three-picture deal at his fingers. Instead, he walked out of the system, figured out how to finance it on his own, borrowed 50k from Bill Cosby, and set out to make an indie drama about a black man running for freedom after challenging a system impossible to fit into, and he got himself the freedom to do it. Yeah, he had to do under the guise of a porn flick, so he could work without trouble from the unions, but he managed to hire as many black actors and crew as he could, mostly amateurs, and was able to go with the flow and craft a radical, X-rated thinkpiece over 19 days of shooting, that for once, saw a Black man stick it to the man, and win.
That’s not a Blaxploitation film.
It’s low-budget, indie, DIY, and a full-on fuck you to American cinematic standards.
It’s a masterwork.
At least, Huey P. Newton (leader of the Black Panthers party) thought so. So much that the movie became part of their handbook.
When you begin to watch Sweetback, right out of the gate you know you’re in for something special. Van Peebles opts out of a regular title card for a “Starring The Black Community” splash, which immediately makes a loud statement about who his intended audience is. The first scenes of the film take you right into a young Sweetback’s childhood days (played by Mario, son of the director), where he is quickly shown the ways of the bed by an older prostitute. A seamless transition to Sweetback, now a man, endowed with a mystical penis, is a star player in the sex industry. After attacking two cops while he is forced to witness a young brother getting assaulted, Sweetback goes on the run in a hyper-realist urban odyssey, encountering a menagerie of characters, some to be trusted, some to be feared, that sees him flee home over the border to Mexico, away from the system to freedom.
Van Peebles leaps headfirst into stereotypes, amplifying them to almost absurd levels. Cops are buffoons, “borrowing” black folks to look good to their higher-ups, the Black man is a stallion, hunted, controlled, and revered for sexual prowess. It’s a movie ahead of its time that took an almost prophetic approach to its message. It saw police routinely beating members of the Black community (something seen as unrealistic at the time) and gave the victims a hero to fight back. What makes Sweetback different is that it comes from an artist with an already massive and controversial body of work. Van Peebles was already entrenched in literature, theatre, and films, enough that his eye was sharp and his teeth even sharper. He would take it all on, not just the whites, but the inevitable exploitation of Black characters by Black characters, leading to even deeper reflections.
Sure, the aesthetics of the sensationalized genre the film is credited for are there: sprawling cities, an infectious funky soundtrack (performed by a young Earth, Wind & Fire), hustlers, dealers, cops, militants, beautiful Black women, and, of course, a strong Black central character that engages in more than a few sexual encounters (read: a lot). But the differences are huge. Van Peebles wasn’t out to exploit the themes of Black America to get butts in seats so studios could rake in the money, that’s just the way the assembly lines of the similarly-styled movies that followed the film did it. Not to take anything away from the Black artists that the Blaxploitation genre created, but the main differences were that the studios didn’t and wouldn’t go into the social political themes that Van Peebles fiercely explored. They didn’t dive head-first into avant-garde film techniques, jump cuts, freeze frames, over exposure, looping dialogue, zooms, non-linear editing. They traded biting commentary for camp. And that’s fine. It’s just different. Very different.
It’s easy sit through this movie and in one minute, laugh at the police buffoonery, while staring in shock at the outrageous (and often unsimulated) sex scenes, then ball your fists up and grind your teeth over how quickly things turn very real. For all its over-the-top stereotypes, the director manages to capture the conflicted and confused position of Black America, tearing it wide open and presenting it with ferocity and style. It proved that a Black militant central character could draw a specific audience and become a box-office smash. It proved that to get your message out there, you could do it (as Van Peebles’ son Mario states) “by-any-means filmmaking.” The film gave way to new wave of DIY projects, liberating artists bound by studio formalities. It shatters the hell out of the representation of Blacks in Hollywood and forces a long, hard look at how Black america grew its own skewed vision of the world around it. It was also arguably one of the first films that used word-of-mouth marketing, a pre-released soundtrack, and creative (and frightening) promotional tactics to finally make Hollywood take a step back and notice something new.
Van Peebles' film may be credited with catapulting the Blaxploitation era, but there was perhaps an even more significant catalyst from this gem: a new era of Black filmmakers. Filmmakers that realized that if they had the passion, they could find the means. That their perspective was no longer confined in the parameters of an unrealistic ideal. They realized their voices could be heard loud and clear, and if you didn’t want to hear it, tough, you were going to have to.
Hell, it shaped me and I could never be happier. It’s a go-to film for me. Even if it doesn’t exactly hold up to today’s digital standards, the themes are in some ways more poignant now than they ever wereL the glorified clusterfuck of Black image, the exploitation of romanticized elements of racial culture, the socio-political musings of conscious and controversial hip-hop. Now we see directors like Ava DuVernay taking on the entire system and winning, misunderstood mainstream artists raging it out on social media, artists doing it themselves by any means necessary, and no one having any idea how to deal with it. I’m all in because the way was cleared. Because Sweetback made it to the border. He won.
And as the final credit said:
“WATCH OUT: A BAAD ASSSSS NIGGER IS COMING BACK TO COLLECT SOME DUES….”
There just happened to be a whole culture of them.
Angels: “They bled your Mama, they bled your Papa”
Sweetback: “But they won't bleed me. Niggers scared and pretend they don't see”
Angels: “Just like you Sweetback”
Sweetback: “Just like I used to be”
Angels: “ They bled your brother, they bled your sister”
Sweetback: “yeah but he won't bleed me”
Sharp, frightening, funny, satirical, shocking, beautiful, absurd, risky, controversial, political, fun, thrilling, raunchy
So fucking real
The ballad of Sweetback isn’t just a Baadasssss Song
It’s a Baadasssss Anthem