Can we ever understand our parents? Probably not. When we’re young they seem impossibly clueless and unfair. As we get older, as life starts beating us down the way it did them, we may start to empathize with them. We may begin to get some insight into why they were so angry and frustrated. But we can’t ever really understand what they went through because we can’t ever understand the times they lived through. Inevitably, their world is different from ours.
Still, we have to try to put ourselves in their shoes, if only to understand ourselves better. When we’re young, we see ourselves as the center of the universe and the setbacks we suffer seem horribly traumatic. When we get older, hopefully we start to realize that other people have suffered, too, and that when we put it all in perspective, the difficulties we’ve experienced often pale in comparison.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is generally credited with starting the blaxploitation cycle that flourished in the seventies. Certainly it made Hollywood aware of the fact that there was money to be made off black audiences, but the film itself has little to do with the routine genre flicks that followed. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweetback because he wanted to create a hero for an audience that didn’t have any movie heroes. He was sick of having his community misrepresented, when it wasn’t being completely ignored, by Hollywood. And so he decided to make a movie that would inspire Blacks. The movie he came up with was cheap, raw, and ragged, but it was also lively, imaginative and burning with anger. Black audiences had never seen anything like it, and they flocked to the theatres where it played.
I’m a little skeptical of Mario Van Peebles’ claim that he initially didn’t want to play his father in Baadasssss!, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To my mind, he’s the only one who could’ve played the part. There were probably other actors who could have done a fine job with the role, but no one else could’ve brought the same intense commitment to it. Maybe the idea scared him at first, but whatever his reservations, I’m glad he took the part. Seeing the son play the father sets up a resonance that vibrates throughout the movie. This isn’t just another film inspired by true events. This is Mario Van Peebles conjuring up the demons that possessed his father.
And his father was possessed by many demons. A smart, proud, angry man, he was determined to make Sweetback no matter what it cost him, and it cost him a lot. We’re not just talking about money, either. Melvin’s obsession with putting the story on the screen put a tremendous strain on his family, especially his son. In Baadasssss!, we see Mario being recruited by his father to play the young Sweetback, and how the boy’s initial enthusiasm turns to extreme discomfort. He wants to be a part of what’s going on, but he’s obviously freaked out when his dad asks him to play a pretty explicit love scene with an older woman. When Melvin makes Mario go through with it, it’s clear the boy is wounded. And the film’s strange reflexive quality makes the sequence especially poignant. This is Mario, playing Melvin, telling his own story within his father’s story.
But I don’t want to make Baadasssss! sound like some depressing psychodrama. It’s actually really entertaining. This improbable story of how an outsider with no money made a hugely successful independent film is totally engaging. The script, by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, is full of outrageous episodes, all of which are apparently based on the actual facts. The early scenes, where Melvin and his friend Bill are trying to raise the money they need, are very funny. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, and it’s a sign of Van Peebles’ skill as a director that he not only makes them all distinct individuals but he also shows us how the relationships between them develop. When the shooting begins, everybody’s excited and enthusiastic. By the time they wrap it up, they’re all completely fried, ground down by the grueling schedule and the overwhelming obstacles they’ve had to face. But the ones who stick it out have all grown from the experience. None of them will ever be the same after having taken this journey.
I think it’s a journey Mario Van Peebles had to take. Watching the movie, it’s clear that being the son of a rebellious iconoclast like Melvin Van Peebles could be really tough. But watching the movie it’s also clear that Mario has a growing awareness of the fact that his father’s intensity and anger were a reflection of the era. As a child, Mario must have thought at times that his dad was completely crazy. But then, he never could have made Sweetback if he’d been completely sane.