R.I.P. Melvin Van Peebles

Just learned last night of the September 21 passing of Melvin Van Peebles (Melvin Peebles, 1932-2021) at 89. No doubt most of the tributes to him this week will deal primarily, if not exclusively, with Peebles’ place in cinema; he is, after all, one of black American filmdom’s three founders, at the head of the second of three successive waves, the first and third of course being Oscar Micheaux and Spike Lee respectively. But Peebles had a hand in every art form: he was an author (both in English and in French); he created theatre at the Broadway level; he wrote, performed and recorded music; he did one man shows; and he painted. It speaks to the superficiality and the racism of American culture, how very little he was known in his totality, as well as what it was that he was known for, though younger people may know and respect him better, on account of his many collaborations with his son Mario Van Peebles.

Most older people probably won’t even know his theoretically most important legacy. When I was a kid I only knew one of his films, and it wasn’t the one that is now regarded as his most significant. It was his 1970 hit comedy Watermelon Man, starring Godfrey Cambridge as an Archie Bunker type racist white guy who wakes up one morning to discover that he is black. (I wrote about that film some here). Despite its relatively edgy content, this was a mainstream Hollywood film; I watched it on TV when I was a kid. It was the success of that movie that gave Peebles the leverage to make what is now regarded as his landmark achievement, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), which he also starred in and wrote the soundtrack for. This film is credited with launching the deluge of black-themed films of the early and mid 1970s, many but not all of which were created by film-makers of color, and which came to be known as the genre “blaxploitation”, although certainly not all of the movies labeled that way are exercises in exploitation.

Anyway, I grew up on this genre. There was no missing it, it constituted a major portion of the the hits that were coming out of Hollywood, and it also had a major impact on television. Yet, for some context, I didn’t know about Van Peebles or Sweet Sweetback until the early ’90s, when it was screened to my class at NYU. They undoubtedly would have shown it anyway, but its import was enhanced by the fact that Melvin’s son Mario Van Peebles released his first film New Jack City at around the same time. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song had been a box office smash, giving Hollywood the realization that targeting films to black audiences could be lucrative. The hope that white audiences would also jump on board, as they did with black music, was part of the strategy. And that is what happened with the genre overall, although most mainstream audiences didn’t know about Sweetback at the time — it was a hit mostly on account of the urban markets. It was the later work by other film-makers that crossed over.

So Sweetback tends to be the lede in any piece about Peebles. But I think it speaks volumes how the rest of his career panned out. You might think he’d be the blaxploitation king. But no, the classics that followed, your Superflys, your Shafts, your Uptown Saturday Nights were made by others. Peebles went his own way and did his own thing. He was, in fact, a very eccentric guy, which is undoubtedly one of the very reasons he dared to attempt the things he achieved.

The son of a Chicago tailor, Peebles had a degree in literature from Ohio Wesleyan. This is not to be glossed over. This is his starting place. He was a writer. His college stint was followed by a four year hitch in the Air Force, which provides context for how comfortable he was in Europe (he had been stationed there). After the service he worked as a cable car driver in San Francisco. This accounts for the 1957 book project that first brought him notice, a collaboration with German-American photographer Ruth Bernhard called The Big Heart (he wrote the text, she took the pictures, documenting and celebrating SF’s cable cars). That same year, he made his first film, the short Three Pick-Up Men for Herrick, which was screened in New York and later in Paris. At some point he lived in Mexico, where he painted, and where Mario was born, and the Netherlands, where he acted in a touring production of Brendan Behan’s Brechtian play The Hostage.

In the early ’60s he moved to Paris where he began to make a name for himself in earnest. He made the short film Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs) (1961), reported for France Observateur, wrote a column for the satrical magazine Hara-Kiri (precursor to Charlie Hebdo), and was even the editor for the short-lived French edition of Mad Magazine. During this period he wrote several books of journalism and fiction, some of which weren’t published until years later. In 1967, he adopted his novel La Permission into his first feature-length film The Story of a Three Day Pass, and this is what gave him the juice finally to make films in Hollywood, which he had wanted to do for a decade. That an American person of color would need to go to France for opportunities was a sad commentary, but also a well-known one: think of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and a long list of high-brow jazz musicians.

Before Watermelon Man, Peebles also recorded the album Brer Soul (1968), on which he delievered satirical spoken word over self-composed jazz music, a style not unlike that of Gil Scott-Heron’s, and was one of the precursors of rap. This was followed by the record Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1970), which was adapted for Broadway in 1971, where it ran for nine months. Then came his second Broadway show Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972), based on his 1967 novel La Fête à Harlem (Harlem House Party), and he which he made into a 1973 film starring Thomas Anderson, Mabel King (from What’s Happening), Esther Rolle (from Good Times), and others. In 1973 he performed a one man show called Out There By Your Lonesome. This was followed by two more albums in 1974, As Serious as a Heart Attack and What the…You Mean I Can’t Sing? In 1976 he wrote the novel Just an Old Sweet Song, that was adapted into a made-for TV movie that year starring Cicely Tyson and Robert Hooks. In 1977 he was one of the writers on the Richard Pryor comedy Greased Lightning. In 1979 he participated as an actor and writer in the 3-part TV mini-series Sophsticated Gents which also featured Paul Winfield, Bernie Casey, Rosey Grier, Robert Hooks, Stymie Beard and others. The show didn’t air until 1981. Meantime, he wrote the book for the short-lived Broadway show Reggae (1980). There followed two more significant theatre works, the semi-autobiographical Waltz of the Stork (1982), which co-starred Mario, and was Melvin’s last Broadway show; and the Off-Broadway Champeen (1983), which was about Bessie Smith and Joe Louis.

Perhaps the craziest biographical fact about Melvin Van Peebles is that he worked on Wall Street during the Reagan ’80s, and even published a book about it Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market (1986). Meantime, his son Mario was beginning to get a foothold as a Hollywood actor in such things as Rappin’ (1985) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986). The two were both cast in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and the 1988 tv series Sonny Spoon. This led naturally to the 1989 film Identity Crisis, which Mario wrote and starred in, and Melvin directed. In 1991, Mario’s career took off on its own account with New Jack City, though the two continued to collaborate. Melvin appeared in Mario’s 1993 western Posse and in 1995, Mario adapted Melvin’s novel Panther into a film. The pair co-directed the 1996 film Gang in Blue. Mario played his dad in the 2003 film Baadasssss! 

Some other credits from Melvin Van Peebles’ hugely productive life: he acted in such things as Robert Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs (1985), Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang (1992), the 1997 remake of Stephen King’s The Shining, and the hilarious 2003 comedy The Hebrew Hammer, starring Adam Goldberg; he directed the films Bellyful (2000), Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008, adapted from his Broadway show Waltz of the Stork), and a 2012 video for his 1971 song “Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail”; he recorded and released the albums Ghetto Gothic (1995), Nahh…Nahh, Mofo (2012), and The Last Transmission (2014); and performed a one man Off Broadway show called Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies (2009). In 2005 he was the subject of two documentaries: How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) and Unstoppable: Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis.

As you can see, this is huge legacy, but because he kept hopping between horses (film, theatre, music, etc) it perhaps interrupted the momentum he might have gotten in any one career. He clearly didn’t care — he expressed himself in whatever medium he felt like at the time. Ya know, like an artist does,