FILE - Melvin Van Peebles attends History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, May 23, 2016, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Melvin Van Peebles, godfather of Black cinema, dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles, godfather of Black cinema, dies at 89

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

In statement, his family said that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.

“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later 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 movies of its time. The low-budget, art-house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

With its hard-living, tough-talking depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a Black perspective, it set the tone for a genre that turned out dozens of films over the next few years and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.

“All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film’s release.

“I could have called it The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback. But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them,” he told The Associated Press in 2003. “So I said Ba-ad Asssss, like you really say 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 critical reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film “an outrage.”

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

But in the wake of the its success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out such box office hits as Shaft and Superfly that were also known for bringing in such top musicians as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes to work on the soundtracks.

Many of Hollywood’s versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in both the white and Black press.

“What Hollywood did — they suppressed the political message, added caricature — and blaxploitation was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The coloured intelligentsia were not too happy about it.”

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

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

After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to maintain his independence.

“I’ll only work with them on my terms,” he said. “I’ve whipped the man’s ass on his own turf. I’m number one at the box office — which is the way America measures things — and I did it on my own. Now they want me, but I’m in no hurry.”

Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap.

Movies

 

Mario Van Peebles, from left, Melvin Van Peebles and Mandela Van Peebles attend History Channel’s “Roots” mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Mario Van Peebles, from left, Melvin Van Peebles and Mandela Van Peebles attend History Channel’s “Roots” mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. (File photo by The Associated Press)