Andrew reviews the seminal Blaxploitation classic.
Writer-composer-producer-director and star Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is regarded in cinema history as the first official entry in what would become the urban Blaxploitation subgenre. Characteristics of the genre often include, thanks to the independently produced Sweetback and Hollywood financed Shaft, a mixture of funk, soul and jazz music and often feature predominantly black cast members. Seeing Sweetback more than forty years since it's original inception, Van Peebles' influences and the experimental narrative style of his labor of love in hindsight seem further entrenched in the mid-60s French New Wave cinema movement pioneered by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. From the eclectic score, carefully executed super-impositions, surreal visual design and a desire to provoke whose power to shock remains unabated by age, Van Peebles seems more in league with the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky than Superfly or Foxy Brown. You could make the argument Van Peebles' inspired street casting lends itself to Italian Neo-Realism pioneered by Pier Paolo Paolini.
The first image you see when looking at the poster for Sweetback is the tagline 'Rated X by an All-White Jury', a marketing move which helped generate enormous success at the box office, taking in $15 million against a $150,000 budget despite only being exhibited in two theaters. As it stands today, it still is a bona fide X rated film with many unsimulated sex scenes including one in the opening sequence involving a minor (Sweetback as a youth played by the director's son Mario). In Europe the sequence was obscured altogether and has lost none of it's anarchic power to shock and offend western sensibilities, legal or not. As the story gains momentum, a simple yet sincere tale of a fugitive male gigolo on the run from the police after murdering two racist white cops, the word Song in the title becomes clear as much of the film is linked by music. Clearly an influence on what would become the cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn, with reliance on the film's funky soundtrack provided by Earth, Wind and Fire (their first official studio recording) guiding the viewer through the silent warrior's journey, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is arguably the most lyrical and expressionistic film associated with the Blaxploitation genre.
Sweetback also boasts still wildly innovative editing and juxtaposition. Take for instance a scene where cops are interrogating one of Sweetback's friends by holding a gun to his ear. As the gun fires and strikes his friend deaf, the soundtrack rings heavily with psychedelic colors superimposed over the image in addition to blurring effects. It is well known Van Peebles studied art in France years prior to filmmaking and current lives in Paris, leaving little doubt the single greatest influence on his art comes from the French. Unlike what would become the Blaxploitation genre, Sweetback also retains a bleak hopelessness not present in the films it would inspire and many scenes near the end of our hero's journey are still hard to look at even now. For those of you who were taken aback by Tom Hardy eating a lizard at the beginning of Mad Max: Fury Road, watch Melvin actually consume a living reptile for the sake of his art. The film's grittiness, caution thrown to the wind editing and genuinely pornography sexuality won't sit well with everyone unaccustomed to experimental cinema. It is worth noting both Melvin Van Peebles and his son Mario contracted sexually transmitted diseases while filming Sweetback which Melvin successfully turned into a workers' compensation claim used to purchase more film stock. Some will (and still are) simply write off Van Peebles' passion piece as exploitation trash while still others that are a little more open minded, myself included, should sit back and enjoy his still electrically and politically charged tapestry which hasn't aged an iota since the day it first came out. Not for everyone but for those who like their cinema a little bit more edgy, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is essential viewing for anyone interested in film.
- Andrew Kotwicki