Baadasssss!: Word 'em up, yo! This docu-dramedy single handedly lifts the movie game out of its chump hole.
"Wow." That's about all I can say. I wasn't sure what to expect heading into Mario Van Peebles' new expose on Blaxploitation cinema. I'd never even heard of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song before flitting into the theater five minutes late for a screening of Baadasssss!
And Hell, I thought Marvin was dead.
This is tits-up the best film I've seen all year...
BAADASSSSS! is about taking the man's foot out yo' ass. It's also about Mario's dad, Melvin, the Godfather of Blaxploitation, and his plight to get Sweetback, the first Independent film in the history of cinema, made. I had a chance to sit down with both Marvin and Mario at the House of Blues last Tuesday for a little one on one discussion. It went something like this...
OI: Are you guys doing this as a team?
Mario: Yeah, Dad will be in here in a minute. I'm going to tell some lies about him.
OI: There's a quote in the press notes that says Melvin asked you not to make him too nice. Did he feel like you did a good enough job?
Mario: You'd have to ask him that. I think what he meant by that was "Make the movie you want to make". Which was cool, 'cause he didn't come down to the set. The first time my dad saw the movie was in Toronto with about six hundred other folks there. It was a standing ovation. At the end I said, "Hey, Pop, what do you think?" And he said, "Well...It was like Seabiscuit on two legs." At the core of Baadasssss! is David vs. the Goliath of the studio system. It's a man with an impossible dream and a fairly complex relationship with his kid. And that's not the kind of roles you usually see a multi-racial cast in. You know? So...It's been going pretty well...Speaking of which, there's the original Baadasssss! (Melvin walks in) Here, let me clean this chair off for you, Sir.
Melvin places his hands on the tablecloth as if doing a séance. The room is very dark and spooky...
Melvin: Okay everybody, put your hands on the table...
Mario: Hi, Dad.
OI: Looks like we're ready to call up the spirits in here.
Marvin: Exactly. It does, doesn't it? We're going to have to get the Ouija board out.
Mario: So, I was just telling 'em about your Seabiscuit quote, there. When you first saw the movie.
Marvin: I don't know what you're talking about.
Mario: Okay, fine.
OI: What was your experience at Sundance like?
Mario: What was hip was Sundance played Baadasssss! at one theater and they played Sweetback at another theater. That was really cool. They got that Marvin Van Peebles really broke down the doors. Not just for black cinema, but for Independent cinema. Look at where the Independent films are today. It's not just being the Godfather of Soul Cinema, but, to some degree, the Godfather of Independent cinema. They really understood that. At Sundance, it was terrific. We got a standing ovation. My dad's talking to Robert Redford, and Robert says, "What do you think?" Dad says, "Well, he's my annuity." And Robert Redford says, "No, no, no...Your son is your continuity." I thought that was a great comeback. But after Sundance we went onto the Floating Festival with Roger Ebert. And it won the Critics Award there. Then, in Philadelphia, it won the Audience Award. What's interesting is; my pop, in 1971, had insisted when he made the movie that the crew look like America. As you saw. He said, "I want some Asians, some black folks, some white folks, some Hispanics." That had never been done. But what's interesting now is that the audience for this movie looks like America. And that's cool. Initially, they said if you wanted it to win, you had to slot it. You had to enter it into a specific groove. But they're finding that the audience is broader than they ever imagined. That's kind of exciting to see it reflected all the way out.
OI: (To Melvin) Did you know the audience was there in fighting the studio system?
Marvin: No. No. Mario knew that. He did Baadasssss! Not me. I had nothing to do with it aside from selling him the option to the book.
OI: I'm referring to the original film.
Marvin: I knew that Hollywood had an Achilles Pocketbook. I knew it would go with my first target audience. And I knew that there was a great deal of that audience that had been shortchanged. It's difficult to imagine now. But, up to that time, the word was that black movies never made any significant money. My answer to that was, "How would you know? You never made a black movie. You made what you would hope were your liberal fantasies." And that was in the good cases. So, I never worried about that. I wasn't trying to make a collective overview on Sweetback. However, behind the scenes, quite the contrary. I was doing everything to make it an American movie. That all the disenfranchised would have the opportunity that I had. Not just black disenfranchised. Not just male disenfranchised. A third of my crew had never seen a camera before.
Mario: It was like film school for a lot of folks, including myself.
OI: Before your Dad sat down, you talked about one of the aspects...
Marvin: Oh, he'll lie a lot when I'm not here.
OI: He was telling the big ones, too. But before, you referred to the father-son relationship as one of the most complex things seen in the movie. Can you talk about that?
Mario: Well, there are a number of things. One was that...I felt...Okay, let me flashback...About three or four years ago I invited some folks to my house. It was John Singleton, Reggie Hudland, Vondie, Gary F. Gray, Rusty Cundif...I think Spike was out of town. We just sat and broke bread. As the evening started, we ordered some Indian food, got our little career groove on, and started dissing each other's movies. We were just having fun like a bunch of guys in a room would. After awhile this silence sat in. We started talked about it. I said, "Look around us. Most of us sitting around this table knew our fathers." John did. Rusty did. Vondie did. Most of us went to college. None of us were on crack. No one spent much time in the J. None of us were gang banging. A couple were going to front, but no one really was. And yet, we weren't being allowed to make movies about people like us. Or women like us. We were being told that all people wanted to see were modern day minstrel shows. Hip-Hop comedies, or shoot 'em in the ass flicks. And there's a place for that. But the Italian directors started out doing their street flicks. Their hood flicks. Their Mean Streets. Their New Jack Citys, their Boys 'N Da Hood. Yet, they evolved to a place where they made movies beyond the pasta perspective. You know what I mean? No one's eating pasta in Apocalypse Now, or in Rumble Fish, or in Dracula. They were able to grow as filmmakers and say, "We're going to do something of a different experience. If I want to come back to something that has to deal with Italian folks, cool, I can do that." Where as we were being told that the audience we had was an audience with baggy pants and big sneakers, and that was about it. There was a glass ceiling. If we were lucky, we'd be invited by the dominate culture to make movies like The Italian Job. And that's a good thing. And we should go out and make those films. And show that we can do that. And just make films as a filmmaker. As a woman. It doesn't have to do with race, or anything. Just make that film. But if you wanted to make a film of color, you couldn't make a Good Will Hunting. Too complex. The audience won't follow. You can't make a Lost in Translation with Hispanic folks, or a mixed cast, or a black cast. Too complex. The audience won't follow it. I took that as a challenge. What if I could make a film about a guy who was from the South Side of Chicago, that did have the French Legion of Honor award? That did speak Dutch, and French. What if I could make a film about a guy that did have a complex relationship with his kid, and these other dynamics? And it wasn't, per say, a nuclear family, but on some level, a functional family. Could I ever get that done? A couple years later, I'm dong Ali. Ali's cracking jokes, as he does. He's got that sardonic wit, doing that magic stuff with his thumb. And all this other stuff. Asking me, "How your Daddy, doin', Boy? Is he still getting some?" I started thinking that Ali was one of the first athletes to use the ring not just to box, but to stand for something. And Melvin Van Peebles used the screen not just to entertain us, but to make movies that stood for something. To edutain us. We got the Ali movie done, now. Could I get the Melvin Van Peebles movie done? And I started thinking about that challenge again. When I sent the script for Baadasssss! out, after I eventually got the book from my dad...He made me pay for it by the way...Let's not skip that point in our interview here...
Melvin: Business is Business...
Mario: Once I got the script done and sent it out to the studios, I got a lot of notes back saying, "This is brilliant, this is good, this is original material, this has texture, this has heart. But, if the character's going to be this complex, can't you make it more for the cerebral, intelligent, or festival audience? What you father did for Independent cinema is legendary. Sweetback, yes, was a black folks film, but, too a very high degree, it was an Independent film. No film, or independent film, had made that kind of money. And it led to the Lost in Translations and the Blair Witch Projects. So, make it more for them." I.E.: Make it more like Boogey Nights. I said, "Well, that's part of the audience. But that's not all of the audience." Next thing they said, "Well, if it's going to be for Black Folks, they love these hip-hop comedies. Soul on a Bus, Soul on a Truck...Soul on a something. Get it out there, baby. Laugh it up, pack it up, ship it around and have 'em say, "Show me the money!" And we'll make it that way." I said, "Well, that's a part of the audience, laughter's a legitimate thing. But that's not all the audience." Then the studio said, "It's too political. Too funny. Not funny enough. Too dramatic." And every studio said, "You've got to make Melvin Van Peebles more likable. What if we don't like this guy?" I thought about it and said, "This is my dad's life. My dad's life was multi-racial, and political, and tragic, and funny." He's a tough guy. And, you know, he is who he is. He said, "Whoever plays me, don't make me too damn nice." And so I said, "Any of those changes would marginalize what I'm trying to do. And marginalize some part of his spirit." So I had to make the film independently. And when I did that, I had to make it in 18 days. I shot it in 18 days. I shot New Jack in 30. All the other films in 40. I shot this in 18. My dad made his in 19. So, it was like...It was like redoing it all over again. The difference was, this time, I didn't get death threats. I didn't lose sight in my eye. And I could go to a multi-racial crew that wasn't in the Union. Because of what my dad did.
OI: What do remember about your father when you were thirteen? Because he was always working, wasn't he?
Mario: Prior to him doing Sweetback, I didn't spend a whole lot of time with him. He was laying the groundwork to get to where he eventually did. And he could tell you about that better than me. But on Sweetback, it's pretty much how you saw in the movie. We didn't get along at first. I didn't want to be in that scene. I didn't want to cut my hair. I damn sure didn't want to give that bike with the banana seat back. That bike was fly. But it was almost like...If we have our differences around this table, and this room catches on fire...There are no windows up in here, are there? We got to jet. Our differences are eclipsed by the bigger event. And we've got to boogie. We're not going to sit hear and talk about our differences. We get out of here. And if we get out, and we realize that some of you are still trapped, let's say you and I put ourselves in harms way to go get some of those folks out. To help them out. To stand for something other than self, then you'll know more about my character in ten minutes than you will if you interviewed me for ten years. And that summer, when the agency gave me that bike and said, "Tell your dad to bail. Do a movie with a white crew. An all white male crew. He did Watermelon Man. Do Fried Chicken Man, do Soul on a Bus. Same deal." Right? "Do a modern day Black Minstrel show, and you'll get over. And you'll get your picture in a magazine, and you'll be a credit to your race. And no one will ask any questions, because you were one of the few guys to do it. And you'll get your amount of props and bling-bling. And you'll be one of us." And he said, "Hell no. I'm going to stand for something. I put myself in harm's way. I'm not going to leave this crew. It's of all colors. And I'm not going to go for the Okay-Doke, and I'm not going to make that type of movie." I saw him really put himself in harm's way for other people. I had a different respect, even though we had those differences. By the end of that summer, I had a different outlook rather than had he gone that other way. At the end of the day, I think he has that respect for me. We share that now. That's something cool to have between a father and a son.
OI: Now that you've played your dad, do you have a better perspective of what he was trying to do?
Mario: Yes. I have a much better understanding of it. Walking in those shoes for a little while, trying to get folks of all color to come through the door and work it out is a trip. I had a guy come through and he said, "The first movie I saw with my wife was your dad's film, in Chicago. That was our first date. We're still married. So, I'm down. Take me to dinner. I want to be your executive producer." Ozzie Davis, who was directing Cotton Comes to Harlem beside Melvin Van Peebles back in the day, called me up and said, "I'm down. I'm flying out." I said, "Ozzie, I'm not doing this with a studio. I'm just VP films." He said, "You don't have no hotel money?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, clean-up your house, because this is when my flight arrives." He stayed at my crib. Nia Ling, Joy Bryant. You know? David Alan Grier. Paul Rodriguez. Adam West, Batman. Sally Struthers. You know? All kind of folk. John Singleton. Bill Cosby. I called Cosby, and he said, "Ah, Hell. Is this another Loan Van Peebles, from the Second generation?" It was so hip. I'll tell you more on that later. But, you've got to ask him some questions, because I'm getting tired of talking.
OI: Let me ask something about Bill Cosby. People watching the film, who perceive Bill Cosby as being Main Stream, might be surprised that he was one of the guys that was there helping you out.
Melvin: Yes. There are a number of ways to look at that. Bill...Let's look at the beginning. There were three blacks that were directing. That is, in Hollywood, there was myself with Watermelon Man, Gordon with Learning Tree, and Ozzie with Cotton Comes to Harlem. I stepped out to make an Independent film. Bill never knew the script. He never knew anything. But he did understand the trouble that I was in. He didn't ask me my mother's maiden name, or anything else. He just put it through and loaned me the money. He didn't invest, or anything else. This was one of the few people, one of the few hopes that transcended what management thinks. Bill was the one that got me into the Director's Guild early on. I met him early on, and he hired me to direct a few episodes of a television show he was doing. That's how I got into the Director's Guild. He knew I was doing an Independent Film, which is just unheard of since I had a three picture deal at Columbia. He even advised me against it, if at all possible. But I was in trouble, and he could understand, as a minority, the inadvertent troubles that came about by the crew getting arrested, or something like that. At that stage of the game, I was in trouble, and he came through. He stepped up and came to my defense. It was wonderful. And he would not even take any interest on the money that he loaned me. When I could pay him back, he took the money and nothing else. The script was not common knowledge to anyone at the time, anyway. So no one really knew what I was doing. He knew that I was doing something, and that I was a very dedicated person, so he helped me.
OI: When you were sitting in the audience, waiting for patrons to come see Sweetback...That was suspenseful. It's sort of like opening weekend. You're getting the word out the best you can, which is still word-of-mouth, and you hope that people come and see it. What were you thinking as you sat, waiting for people to come? You didn't know who was going to show...
Melvin: I had a theory. All this was theory. It's like sitting in a bunker, waiting for a bomb to explode. You have a theory about the energy that holds atoms together. And I had this theory. It was before Ebonics had been invented. Before it had been coined, but I could have called the movie, "The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback." But instead, I called it Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I remember the distributor saying...Well; when I finally got a distributor...That they were changing the title to Sweetback. I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, this other title, I don't understand it." I said, "That doesn't matter. My target audience will understand it. They will." Since I had no money to advertise the movie, and since most of the patrons wouldn't even carry an ad for it because it was X rated, I had this other theory that if I could come up with this tune, maybe music could be...When I say maybe, at that time, music was not used as a selling tool. Now, everybody goes, "Duh!" It's ubiquitous. How much music is used as a selling tool now? Most films are just ninety minute video clips. So, I came up with this idea. The black DJs came on the radio and played my music. This got the word out there.
Mario: Tell him about the first two customers, Dad.
Melvin: The first two customers came in; a woman about sixty-five came in...This was a huge theater...Now theaters are three hundred seats, this was 1500 seats. It was a huge theater. The first woman, she was about sixty-five, comes in with her mama. So, you know ten minutes later they get up and go out. They asked for their money back. They wanted their dollar back.
Mario: They were on hard times. It would cost them thirteen dollars now.
Melvin Yeah...But, later that night, there was a ring around the theater. The first show had two people. The second show was completely empty. But the third show...It was just like a bad movie. What you saw in BAADASSSSS! was not a telescoping of the events. This is what happened. Then this other group shows up. They say they're the Panthers, and they have to see it. Then they made it compulsory viewing for all their members. From those two theaters, boom, everything happened. So, when people ask, "Can this happen? You don't have this, you don't have that." But you do have followers. You know, when this came out, they were making a movie about a white detective. But after Sweetback came out, they stopped the movie. They recast it for black. That was Shaft. Shaft was originally a white detective. Also, Earth, Wind, and Fire, an unknown group, along with my unknown film, was making all this money. So, MGM went back to the same company and asked them to manage the music for Shaft. They took one of their house musicians, Isaac Hayes, and had him do the soundtrack for that movie. The rest is history. What is interesting about BAADASSSSS!, and all these other things, is that the genesis was Sweetback. But it has been ignored in many ways, because of the racial aspect, but also because it was an Independent. Having it make all this money left a lot of egg on Hollywood's face. Plus, it jeopardized a lot of people's jobs. So, I was person-non-gratis. They tore up my contract...But what was I thinking during that first screening of the movie? "Hmm. What's the closest border?" Because my ass was grass. Some of the people I had dealings with would have had to kill me if I couldn't have paid them back. Not out of anger, but out of pure business.
Mario: We've got to split. Okay.
And with that, I say, "Go see this movie, jerks!'