Melvin Van Peebles, innovative filmmaker and playwright, dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright, and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89 years old.

In a statement, his family said Van Peebles, father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan.

“Dad knew that black images are important. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much was a movie worth? “Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday.” We want to be the success that we see, that is why we need to be free. True liberation did not mean imitating the mindset of the colonizer. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people. ”

Sometimes called the “godfather of modern film noir,” the multi-talented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums, playing various instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. Later he became a successful options trader on the stock market.

But he was best known for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” one of the most influential films of its time. The low-budget art film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and scored, was the frenzied, hypersexual, and violent tale of a black street hustler fleeing the police after killing white officers who beat up a black revolutionary.

With his tough and harsh depiction of talking about life in the ghetto, underlined by an empowering message told from a black perspective, he set the tone for a genre that produced dozens of films over the next few years and sparked a debate on whether blacks they were being recognized or exploited.

“All the movies about black people so far have been told through the eyes of the Anglo majority in their rhythms, speech and rhythm,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year the film was released.

“He could have called it ‘The Ballad of Indomitable Sweet.’ But I wanted the main audience, the target audience, to know that it is for them, “he told The Associated Press in 2003.” So I said ‘Ba-ad Asssss’, as you really mean it. ”

Made for around $ 500,000 (including $ 50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $ 14 million at the box office despite an X rating, limited distribution, and mixed reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of commercializing injustice and called the film “an outrage.”

Van Peebles, who fiercely complained to the Motion Picture Association about the X rating, gave the film the slogan: “Rated X by an all-white jury.”

But in the wake of their success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out box office hits such as “Shaft” and “Superfly,” which were also known for incorporating top-tier musicians such as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes. on the soundtracks.

Many of the Hollywood versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, drawing strong criticism from both the white and black press.

“What Hollywood did – they suppressed the political message, added the cartoon – and the exploitation of the bomb was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The black intelligentsia weren’t very happy with that.”

In fact, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality coined the phrase “blaxploitation” and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among fans of the 21st century genre was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar winner “Django Unchained” was openly influenced by blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns.

On Wednesday, a younger generation of black filmmakers mourned the death of Van Peebles. Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” said on Twitter: “He made the most of every second, EVERY damn frame.”

After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with offers of direction, but decided to maintain his independence.

“I will only work with them on my terms,” ​​he said. “I’ve whipped the man’s butt on his own turf. I’m number one at the box office, which is America’s way of measuring things, and I did it on my own. Now they love me, but I’m in no rush. ”

Van Peebles later became involved in Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals such as “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”, the Tony nominee, and “Don’t Play Us Cheap.” He later wrote the movie “Greased Lighting” starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first black racing driver.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a financial self-help guide titled “Money in Bold: A New Way to Play the Options Market.”

Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on August 21, 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the Air Force, serving as a navigator for three years.

After military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portraitist, followed by a move to San Francisco, where he began writing short stories and making short films.

Van Peebles soon left for Hollywood, but was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to the Netherlands to take postgraduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theater.

Eventually, he dropped out of school and moved to Paris, where he learned that he could join the French directors’ guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly learned the language on his own and wrote several novels.

One made it into a feature film. “La Permission / The Story of the Three-Day Pass” was the story of an affair between a black American soldier and a French woman. He won the Critics’ Choice Award at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, and Van Peebles caught the eye of Hollywood.

The following year, he was hired to direct and write the soundtrack for “Watermelon Man,” the story of a white fanatic (played by the white-faced comedian Godfrey Cambridge) who wakes up one day as a black man.

With the money raised from the project, Van Peebles went to work on “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”

Van Peebles’s death came just days before the New York Film Festival celebrated him with the 50th anniversary of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Next week, Criterion Collection will release the “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films” box. A revival of his play “A Natural Death Is Not Supposed to Die” is also planned to hit Broadway next year, with Mario Van Peebles serving as creative producer.


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