Category Archives: Film History

Cast from Waiting To Exhale

Cast from Waiting To Exhale

Car/automobile as symbol for movement and progress? Or symbol for compartmentalization…”being stuck in the box” = containment or

Advertisements

Story of a Three Day Pass poster

Story of a Three Day Pass poster

“La Permission” is the original French title

The Godfather of Soul Cinema: Melvin Van Peebles

by Timothy Aaron-Styles c1994, 2011

The colorfully controversial Melvin Van Peebles was both the genesis of a new breed of African – American film director and a new direction in African American cinema. However, his innovations and accomplishments were not confined to either the Black audience or to Black cinema.

On the contrary, Van Peebles had a tremendous impact on the entire North American film industry and, subsequently, world cinema. Some might even argue that the shooting and editing style exhibited in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)  was a major influence on the music video production style thatemerged years later. 

As pere of contemporary Black cinema, Van Peebles brought to the industry innovative visions that challenged and transcended socio-political standards of the U.S., as well as aesthetic, cultural, narrative and economic traditions of Hollywood.

While his visions were indeed, sensitive to, and supportive of, the sixties political agenda of the African-American community they weren’t restricted nor contained by it.

The content of all his films were socially and politically relevant but only one proved to be an impressive box-office success: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.  And while Sweetback existed outside traditional Hollywood (i.e. as an independently produced and distributed commodity), its impact on Hollywood would have long-lasting impact on the box-office receipts and/or in/through the cinematic visions and processes of SpikeLee, Bill Duke, Carl Franklin, Robert Townsend, the Hudlin Brothers, Julie Dash, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton – even Tyler Perry.

From “narrative structure” to the depiction of ground-breaking, non-stereotypical characters; from marketing (promotions and  publicity) to distribution and exhibition; and from the re-framing of social and political narrative to the re-framing of Black male sexuality –  Melvin Van Peebles’ body of work  influenced all Black filmmakers who came after him. 

Born August 21, 1932 in Chicago, during The Great Depression, Van Peebles first attended West Virginia State College and later graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in English Literature.

While spending several years in the military as a navigator, Van Peebles met Maria Marx years whom he would eventually wed. Mexico would become they new home where he work as a painter and become the father of Mario and Megan.  

After moving his family to San Francisco, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to secure employment with a commercial airline. To make ends meet, Van Peebles became a gripman on the San Francisco cable cars while  pursuing his artistic interests.

Beginning in 1957, after a friend sparked his interest in photography, VanPeebles made several films including Three Pickup Men for Herrick and Sunlight and pen The Big Heart – a children’s book. After continually making the obligatory rounds, beating the pavement and several pitchsessions, he was unsuccessful in securing that necessary and obligatory agent as representative and just couldn’t get his foot in Hollywood’s door.  

Taking advantage of the American GI Bill, in 1959, Van Peebles packed up his family, his visions and his talents and shipped out to Europe — Holland, specifically – where he enrolled at the University of Amsterdam to study astronomy and began performing with the Dutch National Theatre.

After a while, he and his wife divorced whereupon she took their children and repatriated to the United States. Meanwhile, to make ends meet in Europe, Van Peebles would work as a street performer where he was arrested a couple of times for performing without proper licensing.

His previously produced short films were admired by cinema archivist, theorist and preservationist Henri Langlois – who was not only co – founder and director of Cinematique Francaise (French Cinematique), but also was  himself the “ideological father” of  the Auteur Film Theory and a major influence on those young film theorists, critics and cinemaphiles who would give birth to the French New Wave.

At the invitation of the eccentric Langlois, Van Peebles relocated to Paris where he would work as a reporter and publish five French novels[1] after learning that it was easier for published writers to enter the French director’s union and get a film done.

Van Peebles would adapt one of those novels, La Permission, into a feature: The Story Of A Three Day Pass (1967). 

Somewhere beween social satire, dramedy, romance and comedy, The Story Of A Three Day Pass which was, and oftimes still is, misidentified as the first feature film ever directed by an African – American.[2]  While the “Patriarch of  Black Cinema” and/or “Father of All Black Cinema,” Oscar Micheaux, was the first African – American to direct a feature film, this was, in fact, Van Peebles’ first feature film that he not only wrote and directed, but co – scored with Mickey Baker.

The black and white French New Wave  film was shot in France on a budget of $200,000 and was quite “revolutionary” for its time – especially coming from an African – American filmmaker living in Europe, nonethelesss.

While Three Day Pass doesn’t advocate the overt over-throw of the U.S. government or American mainstream society, Van Peebles does strike a blow against the white cultural supremacy and racism of  his and the lead character’s home country and its global importation of it’s ideology throughout the world, by challenging its social and institutionalized restrictions and taboos right where it counts the most – in the place that symbolizes the sacred dwelling place for the preservation and perpetuation of the human species – its culture and its revered and honored traditions – the bed(room).  

 In 1967, during the tumultuous political times,  Three Day Pass suggests, on the big screen, that intimate relations and miscegenation are extremely effective weapons against segregation and white racism. The act of a Black man and a white woman is earth – shattering and universe – shifting for the individuals involved and the social – constructed communities that make up society-at-large.   

Van Peebles not only challenges the extra – narrative social and racial/ethnic taboo of  his racist homeland, but he also defies the number one disseminator of the socio – cultural prohibition of a Black man and whitewoman in sexual relationship – Hollywood. His defiance of Hollywood was both extra – narrative (off –screen) and narrative ( the story).

Van Peebles’ extra – narrative tenacity was demonstrated by his ability to get the film made outside Hollywood’s geo – graphic, economic and political reach. Narratively, his story – at that time – was anthesis to Hollywood’s preservation and perpetuation of the racial taboo is in its refusal to create any film or television commodity that depicted social and sexual – intimacy “between the races.”

Three Day Pass is about Turner, an African-American soldier, stationed in France, who has an affair with an Anglo-French woman and is condemned and punished for the weekend love affair not just by his racist white captain but, maybe, by his own conscience.

In the end, Turner resolves that seeking such relationships are a waste of time. Was Van Peebles suggesting a futility and hopelessness for those individuals who desired  to socially integrate either a country, or within a country, whose ideas and values were so deeply ingrained in racism and white cultural supremacy?

Or was Van Peebles as Turner declaring that the right to choose whomever one desires to love and pro-create with, as the ultimate act of freedom in a truly integrated society, unachievable and not worth pursuing? Especially if it was a Black man choosing a white woman and vice – versa.

American film historian Donald Bogle further points out about the film and the filmmaker’s provocativeness that “the interracial pairing of Black man/white woman (as opposed to the Black woman/white man taboo which had been broken with Dorothy Dandridge’s later films) was considered daring and in some quarters…downright shocking.”[3]  Van Peebles got quite an amusing kick from people’s responses to the pairing of the two, heretofore, forbidden fruits.

While the pairing was (and still is), filled with deeply social, political, cultural and biological implications, maybe Van Peebles was simply seeking to express his personal experience on celluloid and not consciously make any earsplitting revolutionary statement.

But this did not mean that Van Peebles was unaware of the greater significance of this film or any of his subsequent films. On the contrary, Van Peebles as artist has always been politically aware, culturally cognizant and socially conscientious in his own way — on his own terms.  He has always been a strongly independent individual insistent on maintaining his personal individualism and creative autonomy, but well aware of the universal implications and ramifications of his actions and his work.  

Van Peebles surprised his American critics in his ability to direct a feature film in the stylish, innovation and artistic manner in which he did. His editing style and characterizations (especially the larger than life white caricatures) are two of the narrative devices he creatively manipulates to tell the story in his own Van Peeblesque way.

The film made its way to the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, as a French entry, and received positive reviews enough to call attention to Van Peebles by the Hollywood studios.  This time, he did get his foot in the door and reached an agreement with Columbia Pictures.

Van Peebles’ first studio assignment was a comedy, Watermelon Man (1970) starring Godfrey Cambridge and featuring veteran African – American actor and institution, Mantan Moreland. Having appeared in over 300 films during his 30+ years career, Moreland was probably best remembered for his role as Birmingham Brown, sidekick/chauffeur to Charlie Chan in the racist and sterotype perpetuaing murder mystery series of the same name. Moreland also starred in many independently produced films such as Mantan Messes Up (1946) and Mantan Runs for Mayor (1946).

Watermelon Man explores “Jeff Gerber, an obnoxious, wise – cracking suburban insurance salesman who wakes up in the middle of the night to find that he has become a Black man” [4] and the reality that Gerber must “now live like a Negro!”[5]

Again Van Peebles deals with the issue of color and racism in his own special way.  Van Peebles’ approach is a socio-humanistic one. Socio- psychological. Exploratory not condemnatory. Examinative. Contemplative. Watermelon Man positions viewers as subjective and participatory spectators as opposed to objective and theoretical one. The film positions viewers as empathetic participants.

For white viewers the film suggests that: “if you suddenly were subjected to the same conditions that the average Black person is subjected to – you, as a white person, would feel the same way as the Black person and commit some of the same actions.”

The Black spectator, who already knew what it was to be Black in racist (North) America, is given an optional idea to consider concerning both the possible authenticity and validity of (white) liberalism and the equal importance of the class struggle to the racial struggle during the rebellious and tumultuous 1960s.   

Van Peebles examines racism from the perspective of (intimate) relationships, placing characters (and therefore the viewers) in uncomfortable intimate and social positions. Van Peebles, in both A Three Day Pass and Watermelon Man, brings racism to the viewers where they live–in the comfort of their social and personal relationships–in the most intimate of places–at home and in the bedroom.   

Although Watermelon Man was a moderate financial success, Van Peebles was not content at Columbia. Most of the energy expended by Van Peebles on the production was specifically in trying to maintain the freedom necessary to shoot the picture the way he envisioned. It wasn’t until his next film that would practice and realize that artistic freedom completely and totally. 

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was Melvin Van Peebles’ most overtly political film as its making was “toward the decolonization of [B]lack minds, [to] reclaim the [B]lack spirit from the centuries of manipulation by the power structure.”[6]

The “triune nature” of the film as NARRATIVE, PROCESS and PRODUCT attests to Van Peebles’ success in achieving his goal and realizing a vision of an object d’art that was liberating and empowering. 

As for NARRATIVE, Sweetback introduced a hero who broke the historical mode and traditional stereotype — of the conciliatory, surrendering integrationist Black male lead/primcipal character  that was part of  the Hollywood tradition and mainstream cinema.

A tradition that reached its zenieth in/with the films of Sidney Poitier during the 50’s and 60’s. Poitier’s films, and film roles, ushered in the acceptance of the passive, non-confrontational Negro into Hollywood – with Hollywood as symbol and reflector of white North American consciousness and conscienceness and North American (white) society.

In 1971, Newsweek magazine published an interview with Melvin Van Peebles, where the director put forth the notion that Black films, prior to Sweetback, were narratively Eurocentric therefore implying that the films were commodities reflective of the dominant white socio-cultural experience.

Those films were designed to maintain, not subvert, the status quo. Van Peebles contended that Sweetback was a transformatory commodity — a film with the power to renew the collective consciousness of both white and Black audiences.

For white spectators they could see a self-reflection of Black culture and develop a new understanding of Black people through the frames and narratives of authentic and organic Black cinema.

For Black people (viewers and non – viewers alike), the film offered the fulfillment of their collective socio-political fantasies e.g. “rising out of the mud and kicking ass.”[7]  

Sweetback was the answer to the clarion call of “Black intellectuals, who yearned for a blossoming [B]lack genre film…to stimulate mass  B]lack social and political consciousness…” [8] and the desire of the Black audience to see strong Black characters reflective of the perspectives, positions and programs of such strong contemporary leaders as Malcolm, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton.

Van Peebles as filmmaker (creator of narrative) and as “Sweetback” the character “ (participant in and conveyor of narrative), was the embodiment — the fulfillment of  a Black collective desire–a (Black) nationalistic yearning.   

The nationalistic discourse of Sweetback’s narrative becomes apparent as he is “…helped to escape from the police by one [B]lack person after another…the film transforms the ghetto, where [B]lack people are objects in the community, where they affirm their subjecthood.”[9] 

Regarding PROCESS (i.e. the method through/by which the film was made), Sweetback also functioned as decolonizer. Through creative financing strategies (perhaps developed or learned during his stint as a broker on Wall Street or as a “hustler” surviving in Europe), Van Peebles was able to raise the cash for Sweetback through various independent sources outside industry channels” [10] including Bill Cosby as an investor.

The film was made for $500,000 and by the end of 1971, had grossed $10 million!

One of the most important factors in Van Peebles’ success was his ability to keep production costs at a minimum by:

                        1) utilizing Cinemation Industries as distributor;

Cinemation was a distributor of low budget exploitation films. It is a widely held opinion that Sweetback’s success was key in saving the distributor from severe economic loss; [11]

                        2) using a less experienced, non-union crew, Van Peebles took the opportunity to hire Black crew members and “opened the door” for them. As the story goes, he was able to hire a non-union crew by saying that he was shooting a porno film and;

                        3) serving as screenwriter, director, star and composer.

Quite naturally this cut his salary costs.

That Van Peebles was successful in getting Sweetback made outside the powerful Hollywood structure, made a huge profit and impacted the course of Hollywood (and cinema, in general) was a monumental act of “decolonization.”

His process would influence the processes used by many future independent filmmakers, such as Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, to get their films done outside and inside Hollywood – filmmakers

who maintained the integrity and power of their visions while creating films that were socially and culturally relevant, artistically innovative and (ofttimes) financially profitable. 

As PRODUCT, Sweetback was a huge financial success that created an awareness of the marketability and profitability of “Black films” if developed with the specific needs and expectations of  Black people in mind.

Sweetback made Hollywood execs, and possibly their Madison Avenue counterparts, pay attention and open their eyes about four things:

                        1) the Black community as a viable market;

                        2) the profitability of Black film;

                        3) African – American culture as source for plots, themes and  stories; and

                         4) the ability of Black filmmakers to create commercial films.

The first three were what was of most interest to Hollywood –  especially the first two. Van Peebles’ film brought to fore the reality that Black people did, in fact, have money to spend and that they were willing to spend it on something they liked.

They were especially willing to spend their money on films that reflected them — their concerns, their dreams, and their aspirations. They would spend money to spectate films that reflected their experiential reality.

Hollywood took advantage of the situation and invested money in the production and marketing of films that would birth a new genre called, “Blaxploitation films.”

These films were produced specifically for Black audiences and typically featured larger than life heroes/sheroes who kicked the shit of crooked white people (cops and politicians, primarily), white extremists belonging to conspiratorial organizations, gangsters (Black and white) and “dope” dealers. Usually the s/heroes exhibited almost superhuman strength to emerge victorious over insurmountable odds to triumph unscathed.

These “Blaxploitation” films were typically underfinanced; written and directed by a non- Black person and highly profitable. Who exctly profitted the most from these films is still questionable. As a matter of history, many of these films help save several white – owned production companies and, in some instances, a studio or two.

There were some good Hollywood films that were produced during this era that were written and/or directed by such notables as Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Michael Schultz, Raymond St, Jacques and Sidney Poitier. Many of these films proved to be artistic, financial successes, classics and cult classics.  

Most importantly, as PRODUCT, Sweetback served as testimony as historical prototype and model to the ability of Black filmmakers and the possibilities of Black cinema. As PRODUCT, Sweetback is a valuable historical artifact and cultural commodity.

To the Black community (audience and filmmakers, alike), Sweetback is an oracle from which power, wisdom and guidance emanates. As well as opening doors, Sweetback created and constructed doors, hallways and houses.     

Truly Melvin Van Peebles’ early cinematic works were influential on the Hollywood Renaissance; worthy of academic and scholarly study and deserving of Academy recognition.

Had his ethnicity been different, VanPeebles would, undoubtedly, be ranked amongst those cinematic masters of the seventies, as well as one of the legendary pioneers in the development of cinema – domestically and globally.  


    [1]. Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television: An      Illustrated Encyclopedia. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1988.   p.475: “…Van Peebles could get into the French directors’  union no more easily than he could get into the American one. When he learned that in France a writer could direct a screen version of his own work, he decided to become a writer…”

    [2]. Bogle. 207-208

    [3]. Bogle 207-08

    [4]. Leab, Daniel J. From Sambo to SUPERSPADE: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston 1975 p.246

    [5]. Bogle. Page 227

    [6]. Leab. 248

    [7]. Bogle. 210

    [8]. Cripps, Thomas. Black Film As Genre 1978. Michigan: University Microfilms International 1993. P. 129

    [9]. Diawara, Manthia, ed. Black American Cinema. Routledge:  New York 1993.  P. 9

    [10]. Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film Temple University Press: Philadelphia  1993 P. 86

    [11]. Reid, Mark A. Redefining Black Film. University of California Press: California 1993.  P.150