Sunday, February 01, 2009

Don't Make Me Too Nice

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

The cinema of the father shall be visited by the son.

Five years ago, Mario van Peebles approached his filmmaker father, Melvin, about making a movie based on the elder's book Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaker's Manifesto. The book documented the making of the titular landmark 1971 independent film that featured both father and son. Melvin replied, "so long as you pay me," and asked "who's going to play me?" When Mario replied that he would be assaying the role, Melvin gave his son a good piece of both fatherly and filmmaking advice: "Don't make me too nice."

The result was 2004's Baadasssss!, a film that shares similarities with the movie it documents, but with a far easier road to traverse. Like Melvin, Mario shot his film with a racially mixed group of filmmakers, wrote the screenplay (with help from Dennis Haggerty), paid for it with his own money, played the main character himself, and directed the feature in 19 days. Unlike his Pops, Mario had help during his guerilla filmmaking excursion, much of it due to the doors opened by Melvin's pioneering spirit. Also unlike his Pops, Mario changed the name of his movie to something less incendiary: Baadassss! was originally called How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass.

I first saw Sweet Sweetback when I worked at a video store that had a copy on VHS. Our store had first run features, but we specialized in the stuff you couldn't get from Blockbuster: Blaxploitation, karate flicks, Cantinflas movies and porn. The owner would buy one copy of a video and then make and rent 17 copies of it. This was back when video cameras were too damn big to sneak into a movie theater to record the movie off the screen. I got a sense of meta merging with ghetto fabulousness whenever the FBI Warning appeared on one of those videotaped copies, and I'd snicker at the mere thought of Macrovision (which obviously could be outsmarted). I watched guerilla filmmaking on a bootleg video tape and I had the same reaction I did when I watched Sweetback decades later on a DVD I purchased: What the hell did I just watch?

I try to view older movies in the context of the time in which they were made. This is not only for historical purposes; it's a defense mechanism. On one hand, I'd like to understand the mindset of a viewer sitting in the theater at the time. I ask myself questions: Was the shower sequence in Psycho as shocking to audiences as it was to us when that Alien burst out of John Hurt? How much more powerful was the audience's reaction in 1967 than mine was years later when they saw Sidney slap the taste out of that rich White man's mouth in In the Heat of the Night?

On the other, I need to protect and prepare myself, not only for what I may see my fellow minorities doing on screen, but for what the White characters playing them might be doing as well. Most of the time, I roll with the punches and it doesn't ruin a classic (Gone with the Wind is the best example I can provide). Sometimes, as in Holiday Inn, An Affair to Remember, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or Breakfast at Tiffany's, it gets to me on the level it must have gotten to Melvin van Peebles. In an interview included on the Baadasssss! DVD's extras section, when asked which studio system era portrayals of minorities bothered him, Melvin answered "every damn last one of them." We were either too stupid or too noble, too self-serving or too selfless. Racial minorities of all types were rarely allowed complexity and even more rarely allowed to fight back or even have a good sense of community amongst ourselves. When we did fight back, it always met with a tragic end.

We didn't even get to throw down dans le boudoir. Black people were primarily asexual. If they were afforded any sexuality, it was either comically depicted, used by bucks to terrify Whites with the thought of rape, or because the director was nailing the lead actress. Black marriages, rarely depicted with any detail, were devoid of passion. Even Guess Who's Coming To Dinner got around any Black sexual desire by implying that Sidney Poitier kept deflecting Katherine Houghton's attempts to give him the ill nana, preferring to save it for a marriage the film kept hinting it might talk the protagonists out of committing. It appeared that we reproduced by mitosis and never grew that PG-rated symbol of manliness, facial hair.

Sweet Sweetback changed all that. In an attempt to keep his multiethnic crew, van Peebles shot Sweetback under the guise of a porno film to keep the all-White unions from busting up his integrated workers. The main character is a well-endowed pimp who grew up in a whorehouse and worked in sex shows. He had a thick mustache, which he put in places it didn’t belong, and a sense for helping out his fellow man by beating to death the White cops who were assaulting another brother. As he runs from the cops like Jesse Owens on crack, he is assisted by members of the community who rise up to assist his escape. Along the way he has plenty of sex and manages to get away from the Man before threatening audiences that he'd be back to collect some dues. His succcessful journey is scored by a then unknown band named Earth, Wind and Fire with music that is, to say the least, different.

Hollywood was shocked by the mere premise of the film. No studio would touch it nor finance it. Columbia, which had a three picture deal with van Peebles based on his direction of Watermelon Man, wanted nothing to do with the movie. Hollywood wanted Black comedies, something Watermelon Man attempted to be. The story of a White man (Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface) who wakes up Black and loses everything he held near and dear, was supposed to end with the main character turning back his original color. van Peebles refused to shoot that ending, citing that Blackness was not a disease from which to be cured and forcing Columbia to release the film with its protagonist still as brown as Nestle Quik when the credits rolled. Hollywood should have known by then with whom it was dealing.

Without help from Columbia, and the desire to do it on his own anyway, Melvin van Peebles decided he would self-finance the movie despite knowing very little about the process. This is the story Mario van Peebles' Baadasssss! depicts, with Mario as his dad and Holes co-star Khleo Thomas as Mario. True to his father's advice, look-a-like Mario doesn't play his dad as too nice. In fact, what makes Baadasssss! so fascinating is the way Mario plays Melvin's interactions with his onscreen crew and his onscreen alter ego. This is both an exorcism of demons and an example of honoring thy father.

Melvin van Peebles is a fascinating man whose hustle took him down some interesting paths. His hustle required he learn French, so he not only learned French, but he wrote several books, musicals and a film in French. His hustle required he figure out how to get a movie independently made, and not only did he do so, he channeled his vision of integrated crews, independent filmmaking and Black empowerment features into the rule rather than the exception. I admire him, never mind the fact that his most famous movie gives me a horrible headache whenever I've watched it. His melding of book knowledge with hustle inspires me to this day, as does his ability to get workman's compensation for a sexually transmitted disease during Sweetback's production. If only it were that easy nowadays.

By all accounts, Melvin was a driven man whose vision led him to get his film made by any means necessary. This included a single-mindedness that was at times hurtful and downright destructive. Baadasssss! doesn’t shy away from any of this, and while it's clear Mario loves his Dad (they have worked together numerous times on projects), he occasionally portrays a very unlikeable man. Having a knowledge of the proceedings, both first-hand and from his father's manifesto, helps van Peebles create a film full of little details about Sweetback's making and the characters who made it happen. Several sequences cleverly insert actual footage of Sweetback next to recreations, and others have the headache-inducing look and feel of the original, not to mention the nudity. Mario is also able to add his own feelings to the proceedings, especially in regard to Sweetback's most infamous scene.

Both Sweet Sweetback and Salty Odienator were born on the same day. According to Baadasssss!, Melvin van Peebles started shooting his feature the day the doctor slapped my ass and said "it's a boy." Melvin was doing other things with boys and asses, however, opting to shoot the opening scene depicting Sweet Sweetback's deflowering at age 10 with his own 13-year old son, Mario, playing Sweetback's naked, humping behind. This controversial sequence is censored on the UK DVD of Sweet Sweetback under the country's Child Protection laws but completely uncut here in America. To call it profoundly disturbing is an understatement, despite the unintentionally hilarious opening credit that appears onscreen during the scene and the admittedly great juxtaposition of the elder van Peebles—Sweetback figuratively and literally becomes a man—at scene's end.

Mercifully, Baadasssss! doesn't put Khleo Thomas through the actual sequence; it shows clips from Sweet Sweetback instead. But the pain Thomas plays when asked to do the scene, and the objections by other characters in Baadasssss!, allow Mario the filmmaker to impress some of his own feelings on the event.

Mario van Peebles anchors almost every scene in Baadasssss!, and he is surrounded by a talented bunch of known names as well as people who would go on to bigger things. Joy Bryant plays his over-dramatic secretary, Priscilla, who makes ridiculously overdone entrances to remind him that she deserves to be in his movie. Terry Crews from Everybody Hates Chris plays Melvin's boom man and on-set muscle. David Alan Grier is the porn producer who initially partners with Melvin--he has the funniest scene in the picture, which takes place during a porn looping session—and Nia Long is the girlfriend/voice of reason for Melvin. Ossie Davis has a bit part as Melvin's father while T.K. Carter plays Melvin's financial savior, ponying up $50,000 to get the film finished. Carter's impression of said savior, is almost as good as Eddie Murphy's in Raw. Karimah Westbrook is memorable (and memorably naked) as the actress who figures in Sweet Sweetback's sexiest scene.

They all do fine work, but nearly stealing the picture from its star is Rainn Wilson from The Office, playing a stoned hippie straight out of a Roger Corman quickie. Wilson is goofy but completely believable, and his scenes with van Peebles are at times deliriously warped.

The Baadasssss! DVD extras are a wonderful addition to the film, as they contain interviews with the actual people and the actors who portrayed them. Jose Garcia, the film's cameraman, chats it up with Paul Rodriguez, who plays him in the film. Both Mario and Melvin chat it up, as do most of the cast. It's worth sitting through that, as well as the commentary on the DVD by father and son.

Baadasssss!, and it may be blasphemy to say this, is a better film than the movie it's chronicling, but its subject is more important. It changed the way Hollywood thought of Black audiences AND the way people made movies. For all that's been said about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it’s been called everything from an “almost psychotic…absolutely mindless and dirty political exploitation film” (Vincent Canby, NY Times) to "the first truly revolutionary Black film made” (Huey P. Newton), I just wish I’d been in the theater the first time audiences realized that their hero had beaten on his oppressors and gotten away with it.

"Wow! They're right about that 'Once You Go Black' thing. Steve Carrell needs to hire more brothers at The Office!"


Brian Darr said...

I've still never seen the original, but I enjoyed the Hell out of Baadasssss!, especially under the circumstances that I saw it. It was the next-to-last night of the San Francisco International Film Festival, in the biggest house of the Kabuki Cinema, right at the corner of Japantown and the Fillmore District. Both Mario and Melvin Van Peebles were there in person, relating stories for what felt like a delightful hour after the film. Of course MVP pere has history in Frisco, having worked as a cable car brakeman when he lived here in the 1950s. The SFIFF had also been the first festival to play his Story of a Three Day Pass (which I also have not seen- must get on that!) in 1967.

The only regret of the evening (and I'm not the first person to express this sentiment) is that Baadasssss! was not the closing night film- it would have been a terrific way to celebrate. I shudder to even think of the film that was in fact selected as closer that year (hint: it starred Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan and opened wide the day after the gala). Those were in many ways dark days for the San Francisco Film Society, but thankfully they're over as they now have a far better executive director.

Glad to be reading the mumf- keep it coming!

odienator said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian! I can't believe they ran Laws of Attraction (was that the name of that movie with Pierce and Julianne) as the closing night of anything! I saw Baadasssss! at a theater in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. I was the only person in the theater! It was on my ten best list that year.

As for Sweetback, if you watch it you'll put a lot of Mario's picture into context. However, it's not an easy film to sit through. Even at its most interesting, the way it's shot is headache inducing. I've seen it three times over the past 20 years (the last time was 2 weeks before I wrote this) and it's more important for what it did than for how it's done.

Even though I didn't like van Peebles' music (it made me want to shoot my TV during Watermelon Man), apparently I'm in the minority. He has multiple Tony award nominations for musicals. Somewhere I recall seeing an album of his whose title was "What? You Mean I Can't Sing?!" I should have brought that one.