You know how you can tell a film is underrated? I listed Baadasssss! in my column about my top 25 favourite movies of the decade, but other than the trailer, I could not find one single Youtube clip from the film to post! Despite garnering a lot of praise from critics (even earning a spot on Roger Ebert’s year-end “ten best” list), Baadasssss! pretty much opened and disappeared without much fanfare. However, its not too hard to understand why, considering that it’s a film about the making of a film that most average moviegoers have probably never even heard of. It chronicles the turbulent history of Melvin van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which pretty much gave birth to the blaxploitation genre and was a major landmark in the history of African-American cinema and independent filmmaking in general.
This little film struck a major chord with African-American audiences because it was one of the very first ones to portray them in an empowering position. The movie’s title character (played by Melvin Van Peebles himself) winds up going on the run for killing some racist, corrupt cops and, in a hugely controversial ending, he manages to get away with it, which was just UNHEARD OF at the time! Now, even though I greatly respect the film for its historical importance, I’d be lying if I claimed that the ultra-cheap, choppy Sweetback was a personal favourite of mine. However, I do consider Baadasssss! (which was originally going to be titled How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass!) to be one of the greatest films ever made about filmmaking. What makes the film so unique and special is the fact that it was directed by and stars a guy who was actually there to witness the events: Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario. It makes for a one-of-a-kind situation as Mario Van Peebles plays the role of his father and directs another actor (Khleo Thomas) playing himself as a twelve-year old!
Even though Mario obviously has great love and admiration for his father, he does not choose to portray Melvin as a saint, which only makes Baadasssss! a lot more interesting character. To Melvin’s credit, the only demand he gave his son while making the film was “don’t make me too nice”. Since Sweetback was going to be a hugely controversial film, it was impossible to secure financing from investors, so Melvin was forced to put up his own money and risk everything in order to get the movie made. With so much on the line, it was not beneath Melvin to manipulate, intimidate or lie to others in order to get what he wanted. The most controversial incident of the shoot involved Melvin casting Mario as the film’s title character for a scene in which Sweetback loses his virginity to a hooker at the age of twelve! Mario does not sugarcoat anything when dealing with this issue and it’s clear that he has never appreciated his father’s decision. However, ít is impossible not to admire Melvin for some of the revolutionary things he did on this shoot. Believe it or not, this was still a period when using a crew that consisted of people from more than one race was against union rules, but Melvin found a way around that. Since the union never wanted be associated with porn films, Melvin chose to film a pretty graphic sex scene on the first day of shooting while union reps were visiting the set! He never saw them again after that. In spite of that, pretty much everything that could go wrong on this shoot did and the project was almost ruined when members of the crew were arrested and their film equipment impounded simply because… well, if a group of black guys were driving around with a truck of film equipment, they obviously must have stolen it, right? It actually took a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby in order to salvage the film since he truly believed it would turn to be something important.
Anyway, in spite of his flaws, Melvin Van Peebles is still a very sympathetic figure and it’s impossible not to root for him to succeed. In the end, the gamble does pay off as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song becomes one of the most financially successful independent films the movie business had ever seen. Mario Van Peebles’ acting career may be associated with cheesy action films like Solo, but he gives a terrific performance in the role of his father, and it’s unlikely Baadasssss! would resonate as well as it does if it were not made by someone with such a close personal attachment to the events on display. Few movies have ever really captured the world of independent guerrilla filmmaking better than this one and it does a marvelous job at conveying the great personal risk and sacrifice it can take for a filmmaker to do something revolutionary. The whole experience is put into perspective during the end credits when interview footage is shown of the real people who were involved. One of them says: “Before Sweetback became such a huge hit, Shaft was intended to star a white guy”.