I am happy that Vinegar Syndrome has released what I am sure will be the definitive restoration of Melvin Van Peebles’s controversial, revelatory film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on Blu-ray disc just last week. I know it looks and sounds better than my old Criterion Collection laserdisc from the 1990s.
The Plot in Brief: Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) is a sex worker whose boss volunteers him to be arrested by two New York cops one night. The police officers are being pressured by their boss to arrest more black men, and they assure Sweetback that his arrest is just for show and that he will be released soon. Cuffed in the back seat and on his way to the police station, Sweetback witnesses the officers commit an appalling act of police brutality. Sweetback beats both officers badly and flees the scene. The rest of the film concerns Sweetback’s desperate, fractured flight to the Mexico border, chased by police officers the entire way. A title card informs the audience that one day, a black man will be returning “to collect some dues.”
Melvin Van Peebles says something illuminating in one of the interviews included as a supplement on the new Vinegar Syndrome disc. At the 5th Annual Black Panther Film Festival in New York, he tells a rapt audience that when it comes to art, there are no rules. Rules in the world of art, he explains, are just ways for the art establishment to keep young artists down. He didn’t have any money, so he made his film for no money. He couldn’t convince established film people to come work with him, so he did the whole thing himself, writing, directing, editing, and starring as the title character. Someone in the crowd encourages him to say it again, so Van Peebles practically shouts, “There are no rules.”
Melvin Van Peebles’s son Mario, who appears in Sweetback, later directed and starred in a film about the making of it, the 2004 Baadasssss! That film is terrific too and deals not just with the obvious love and respect Mario has for his Dad, but also issues regarding an artist’s responsibility to his children and family. It makes the ideal second feature… if you plan to screen Sweetback tonight.
(Thrilling to see a new talent [in 1971] emerge in American cinema, both raw and fully-formed.)
(The portrayal of the black experience in America is chilling.)
(The movie’s violence is portrayed very realistically—that is to say, not like “movie violence,” but how violence truly is: small and ugly.)