Saturday, 16 January 2010

Rated X by an all-White Jury !

Written, scored, edited, produced, directed and starring Melvin Van Peebles in 1971, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is not so much a film but a hand grenade thrown at conventional Hollywood Cinema. The story of Sweetback, a performer at a live sex show (hence the nickname), on the run from racist cops (and an "overdose of black misery") sounds like like typical Blaxploitation but the movie is anything but, as Van Peebles unleashes an arsenal of guerrilla tactics - crash zooms, super impositions, freeze-frames, over lapping dialogue, color effects, documentary-style inserts and an extraordinary editing style of colliding, cascading shots that pay little attention to established film grammar. So left field and experimental is the film that Van Peebles is closer in spirit to Alejandro Jodorowsky and El Topo than Gordon Parks and Shaft.

The film was largely financed by Van Peebles himself, and according to legend, from funds received from the Director's Guide of America, by way of compensation after Van Peebles got the clap from one of the actress, injured on set as it were. As well as that Bill Cosby loaned Van Peebles $50,000 to complete the film. With a heady mix of black politics, black spiritualism and agitation propaganda, and its raunchy jazz funk soundtrack performed by Earth Wind & Fire, the film was a huge hit at inner city Grindhouses.


Currently the best way to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is Xenon's "30th Anniversary Special Edition" DVD which is the full uncut version - including the opening scene where Van Peebles' 14 year old son, Mario is seen frolicking with a whore; cut from the BFI DVD (in accordance with UK Child Protection laws). Presentation wise, some nightime scenes are a little murky, the print is full of dust and debris, and the soundtrack has plenty of snap, crackle and pop but considering the guerrilla conditions that the film was made under, Xenon's DVD may be a good facsimile of what it was like to see the film at The Roxy on 42nd back in the '70's. The DVD also includes a short documentary about the film (well worth seeing) and some trailers for Van Peebles' more hard-to-find films.

2 comments:

  1. This film was definitely one of the launching points for the whole Blaxploitation genre - and it's a movie I thoroughly enjoyed. Van Peebles caught lightning in a time capsule - as vibrant and stylish today as it must have been back then. What a revelation it must have been to see it in the theater in the early days of its release!

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  2. Craig, I was blown away when I first saw this, completely astonished... I wanted to join the Panthers !

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