This review is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man!
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an enormously important film in the history of American cinema. It was arguably the first blaxploitation film, which was soon followed by the decidedly more mainstream Shaft. There were a handful of films in 1970, most notably Cotton Comes to Harlem, but Sweetback and Shaft really kicked started the trend in 1971, and by the next year the genre was in full swing.
Melvin Van Peebles plays Sweet Sweetback (so called because of his large penis and sexual prowess) who is the baddest gigolo you’ve ever seen. One night he’s arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. After his boss makes a deal with the cops, he is supposed to get out a few days later. On the way they pick up a Black Panther who the cops beat to a pulp, so Sweetback fights the cops. This starts in motion the rest of the movie, which is a series of vignettes of him running from the cops (the Man) and getting help from the Black community on his journey to evade “justice.”
The film not only starred Melvin Van Peebles, but he also directed, wrote, co-produced, scored, and edited it (take that, Orson Welles!) after he made the Hollywood film Watermelon Man. It’s often forgotten that he cut his teeth in France in the mid ’60s, making a quasi- French new wave film The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which actually got some Hollywood producers mistaking him for some French auteur! Van Peebles made some money off Watermelon Man, and despite a few Hollywood offers he decided to make his next project a Black Power film. He had tried to inject some radical politics into Watermelon Man, but couldn’t get it past the studio heads. Van Peebles used his own money and $50,000 loan from an infamous black comedian who shall not be named, and embarked on making his movie.
The stature of the film over the years has risen and fallen, with a real split in views between “classic of Black cinema” and “a jumbled mess.” But Sweet Sweetback for the majority of the time still holds up, even if the endless sex scenes are ridiculous and frankly, at times ruin the narrative. The opening sequence seems controversial to this day, with a fully nude Mario Van Peebles as young Sweetback being raped by a prostitute in a brothel. The sequence has been heavily censored in the UK, even though it’s clearly not Mario having real sex. The same can’t be said for some of Melvin’s sex scenes in the film. In an insanely audacious move, Van Peebles actually claimed workers comp from the Director’s Guild because he caught gonorrhoea in one of the sex scenes. He won his claim, and like any good filmmaker, bought more film.
Overall, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is still worth a watch. Its jazzy improvisational feel owes a lot to the French New Wave, with its jump cuts and use of montage being more inventive than the majority of the “New Hollywood” films of the same time. It feels much more an American answer to Godard than anything Arthur Penn did in Bonnie & Clyde, and seems freer in form, like Godard’s À bout de souffle did a decade earlier. It’s raggy and doesn’t have the narrative cohesiveness of Shaft, Across 110th Street or the other more mainstream blaxploitation films, but its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
Vinegar Syndrome has been touting the impending release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for a couple years now and it doesn’t disappoint. The new transfer is remastered 4k from a 35mm original camera negative, and because of the mixture of 16mm and 35mm film stock, some of which has degraded, the transfer gives a few short scenes a slightly solarized look that just adds to the psychedelic feel the film has at times. The commentary track is by Sergio Mims, who was the assistant director of Penitentiary, another excellent blaxploitation film recently released by VS. The features are mostly archival interviews with Melvin Van Peebles, which are all a solid length and informative. The new interview is with Niva Ruschel, one of the actresses in the film, which comes in at 30 minutes. The rest of the on-disc extras are stills galleries and trailers. The release also includes an essay by Travis Crawford.