Melvin Van Peebles is the multi-hyphenate who put other multi-hyphenates to shame. Over the course of a career that touched six different decades, Van Peebles plied his many trades in the fields of film, music, stage, and literature. He was an uncommonly gifted man at a time when being uncommonly gifted might have born more fruit had he not been a black man. Throughout his life, he often struggled to bring projects to fruition due to a lack of financial backing that can be explained in another way, quite simply, as racism.
That being said, while Van Peebles output may have been impacted by a lack of opportunity, his industriousness was endless, and while there may not be as much bounty to take in as there should have been, what’s there counts.
In 1965, Van Peebles was hired as Editor-in-chief by Mad Magazine to start a French version of their satirical publication. The project only produced five issues, but Van Peebles stayed on in France, producing four novels and a collection of short stories. one of those novels (La Permission – written in French!), was made into a movie called Story of a Three Day Pass by Van Peebles himself. Not only did he write and direct the film, he also composed the score. It’s a heartbreaking romantic drama about a Black GI who falls in love with a white Frenchwoman over a long weekend and is later demoted by his superior officer for “fraternizing” with a white woman.
While Story of a Three Day Pass is an exceptional film, his next film, Watermelon Man, would be a far more radical exercise. Starring comedian and Obie Award winner, Godfrey Cambridge, the film tells the story of a white man who wakes up one day and find his skin has turned black. Now on the other side of racial discrimination, the character suffers from the sort of treatment he used to deliver to others before his pigment conversion. The film was a success, resulting in a three-picture offer from Columbia Pictures.
Having no interest in toning his work down. Van Peebles rejected Columbia’s offer and instead sought independent funding for the film that would become his cinema-changing calling card, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Not only did Van Peebles Produce, write, direct, edit, and score the film himself, he also starred as the title character: a black man on the run after beating down two white police officers after seeing them assault a black revolutionary. Highly controversial at the time (not only for its storyline and violence, but also for its graphic sexuality, which earned the film an X-rating), Sweetback was also a stunning box office success. The 1971 shocker made $15 million at the box office, despite rarely being shown in mainstream movie houses. For those keeping score at home, that’s $98 million in 2021 dollars. The film is considered a blaxploitation landmark, but that hoary descriptor doesn’t do the film justice. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is nothing less than a cinematic revolution that played out against the incendiary racial climate of the late 60s and early 70s. It’s as avant-garde as any French New Wave film you’ll ever see, and one of the most immediate movies you will ever see on the subject of race.
Van Peebles next project would be, of all things, a Broadway musical. 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap told the story of two of Satan’s helpers sent to break up a Harlem house party to get back into Beelzebub’s good graces. Van Peebles wrote, directed, and composed the music for the production, which was nominated for two Tony Awards. Later that same year, Van Peebles would bring the show from stage to screen, but it was barely released and went almost entirely unseen until coming to home video in the 90s.
After the commercial failure of Don’t Play Us Cheap, it would be 17 long years before Van Peebles got another opportunity in the director’s chair. In between, he wrote the screenplay for Greased Lightning, the sadly forgotten Richard Pryor film from 1977 starring the comedian in a “straight” role as the groundbreaking stock car driver Wendell Scott. Van Peebles also produced, co-starred, and composed the score for the well-regarded three part NBC miniseries, The Sophisticate Gents about a group of black men tied together by sports who come together to salute the coach that brought them together. The series finished filming in 1979, but would not air (for reasons unknown) until 1981.
When Van Peebles finally got behind the camera again, for the 1990 hip-hop comedy Identity Crisis (co-starring his son, Mario), he again found no one to partner with to give the film a proper release, and Identity Crisis went straight to video without making much of a mark.
The 1996 film Panther, a fictionalized account of the Black Panther movement, based on a screenplay Van Peebles adapted from his own novel (and directed by Mario) received wide distribution, but was widely-panned and didn’t find an audience.
Van Peebles would only direct three more films over the remainder of his career. 1996 brought Tales of Erotica (an anthology film where he shared credit with the likes of Ken Russell and Bob Rafelson, among others). and Gang in Blue, a police drama he co-directed with Mario. Then finally, in 2000, came Le Conte de Ventre Plein (based on his own novel), a film set in 60s France about race and hypocrisy. The film premiered at Cannes, but like every film Van Peebles directed after Sweetback, Le Conte de Ventre Plein struggled to find distribution.
For the back portion of his career, Van Peebles settled into a sort of emeritus status. He was regularly referenced and interviewed. On many an occasion he would be feted at film festivals and other events. The “Godfather of Black Cinema” he has often been called. And while there might be a tendency to see his directorial output as somewhat sparse, there’s plenty of truth in that statement. Without his bold, visceral earl work, it’s hard to imagine the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, or Jordan Peele coming into existence. His son Mario would find success of his own as a director with New Jack City in 1991 and again in 2003 with Baadasssss!, his part documentary/part homage to his father’s own stirring film from more than 30 years earlier.
And as the father must come before the son, so must Melvin Van Peebles have arrived before all of them.
Melvin Van Peebles died on September 21, 2021. He was 89 years old.