by Scott Rice -
SGN Contributing Writer
Through September 14
Melvin Van Peebles is probably best known for his seminal film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the 1971 story about a physically gifted black man who violently resists institutionalized racism. This is the film that got Van Peebles known as the father of '70s-era blaxploitation films. However, Van Peebles would prefer to be known as blaxploitation's illegitimate uncle and the father of contemporary independent cinema.
Though Van Peebles has been called many things, let me set the record straight: He is a musician, composer, actor, photographer, visual artist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, poet, lover of women, and film director. He's also a funny, funny man.
I sat down with Van Peebles in the lobby of the Sorrento Hotel amid a din of activity. This 77-year-old iconoclastic filmmaker in khaki pants, tweed driving cap, and hoodie (all three well-worn) never missed a beat. He has obviously had experience working in chaotic situations.
Van Peebles is in town for the opening of his new film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha, which runs through September 14 at the Northwest Film Forum (www.nwfilmforum.org).
Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha is a picaresque farce in the tradition of Don Quixote, Candide, and Tom Sawyer. And it's pure Van Peebles. At times the satire wobbles and the production values may seem lacking, but there's little doubt Van Peebles likes it that way. The fun is in the imagery, the fast-paced and imaginative editing, and good, old-fashioned storytelling. The whole thing is complimented by amazing music with roots that run deep in the black community.
If you get a chance, check out this new film from one of America's true hero-artists.
Scott Rice: Is it okay if I call you Melvin?
Van Melvin Peebles: Yeah, no problem.
Rice: I talk to a lot of people along the way, but I seldom get to talk to somebody I studied in school.
Van Peebles: Really? [Laughs.]
Rice: Yeah, at CU we looked at Sweetback.
Van Peebles: Sweetback changed everything, you know. That was my third feature. I had been invited by the French Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, the mythological figure, the starter of film museums. He had seen my earlier films I made in San Francisco, so he invited me to France. At the time, I was in Holland studying celestial mechanics to get my Ph.D. in astronomy, and I dropped it and came to France. After I published a number of novels in French because I had to teach myself, no problem. And then I was a delegate to the San Francisco Film Festival and nobody knew I was American, let alone black. That caused a major uproar because that was the first big major crack in Hollywood's&.
Rice: Was that with Three Day Pass?
Van Peebles: Yeah, that was Three Day Pass, that is correct.
Rice: In the context of cinematic history, how do you want to be thought of?
Van Peebles: Well, in the context of & I think genius would be okay.
Rice: (Laughing.) I think that'll fly. Do you think that's how you'll be thought of? When I think of you I think of all these words like iconoclast. I mean, Sweetback is still a completely original film. There's nothing else like it.
Van Peebles: I'd say pragmatic. You see, I had to deal with what I had to deal with. There was no need of me making a film that technically required me to go to unions that would not have me. So, I had to design everything. That was pretty smart, to design everything so I could maintain control of it. I've had to use the same pragmatism in music and other things. For example, I Ain't Suppose to Die a Natural Death was a Broadway show. I had no way of doing that, so I started as albums. And then someone came and said, "Look at your albums, that would make a great play." Well, no shit. That's what I intended the whole time.
Rice: It's kind of been like that the whole time.
Van Peebles: Now I'm doing Sweetback as an opera. But if you look at the original album, and this was over 40 years ago, it says Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: An Opera.
Rice: It travels in circles.
Van Peebles: Yeah, but you have to get the muscle to do it. I wrote the score, but the group that did it - Earth, Wind, and Fire - it was their first album. They couldn't get arrested before that.
Rice: Yeah. [Laughs.] Were you surprised by the reaction to Sweetback back in '71 or '72?
Van Peebles: Mmm. I didn't look up that high, i.e., I was just going to do what I had to do. I usually don't intimidate myself with expectations. I just do what I want to get done. I do like I cook; I put in what I like because I'm going to have eat it for the rest of the week.
Rice: I need you to teach me a little of that. [Laughing.] If you could change one thing about Sweetback, what would it be?
Van Peebles: Nothin'. Why would I fuckin' change it? It went through the roof.
Rice: [Laughing.] It's true. But if you had to change one thing?
Van Peebles: Nothing. I don't deal like that. I do it until I get exactly what I want and then I leave it.
Rice: That's fair. I love the section near the end of Sweetback when Sweetback is kind of elevated to the level of mythological figure and the community has latched onto him.
Van Peebles: The movie did very well in Detroit. I went down to the only other city in the United States it showed: Atlanta, Georgia! And I go into the theater and it's full. There's only one place beside this little old black lady. And right where you're talking about, he's out there in the desert and the lady there, she starts talking to herself, "O Lord, let him die. Don't let them kill him."
Van Peebles: Because in the movies before that time, any black who stood up never made it to the end of the movie. If you stood up, you died nobly, but you died.
Rice: Yeah, she couldn't imagine an ending without&.
Van Peebles: Nobody could imagine, and every time the movie was over people would & they just couldn't imagine that.
Rice: See, that's just such an incredible insight that from my perspective. I would never get that without you telling me that.
Van Peebles: I had done what I meant [to do]. I said, "Wow! I was right."
Rice: That's part of filmmaking, though. You throw the mix out there and sometimes you don't know how it's going to come together.
Van Peebles: Yeah.
Rice: Thank you for putting in the three Queer militants in the last act of Sweetback. Where was the inspiration for that? And I write for a Queer paper, so the readers will be interested. When I saw that, I was younger and in college and there was a moment when I thought, "Those are people I identify with." I was fascinated that back in 1971 these three figures were being given a voice and being given power. So my question is, when did the moment come where you said, "we're going to find these three guys, and&."
Van Peebles: Well, it's not that we got to go find these guys, it was all these people are truth. There's a guy saying, "I don't know about my own goddamn self." And these other guys were Gay and said, "How do you do, officer." These are the real people. Let's not exclude people. This is the street. These are the people. These are human beings, too. Get outta here.
Rice: It is a powerful point in the film for those of us who grow up Queer to see a filmmaker like you put those images up on the screen, especially in 1971.
Van Peebles: Nobody would do that.
Rice: No, they didn't. There weren't even Queer filmmakers&.
Van Peebles: If you ain't for everybody, then you ain't. & You got to see to be a piece of shit yourself.
Rice: It's true. [Laughing.] So, what's the best thing you've ever done in your life?
Van Peebles: I can't talk about that, because her husband might read the paper.
Rice: Enough said. I won't press. I'm going to go see Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha tonight. Tell me a little about the movie. What should we know?
Van Peebles: It's self-explanatory. It's all right there in the title.
Rice: What's up next for you?
Van Peebles: I'm going to make another movie. I've been doing an off-Broadway small musical called Unmitigated Truth and I think I'm going to film that. After that, I'm doing Sweetback as an opera in Paris the 15th of February.
Rice: Melvin, thank you so much for taking time out of your day for me.
Van Peebles: Hey, that's what it's about.
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