Monday, August 22, 2011

#381. Baadassss! (2003)

Directed By: Mario Van Peebles

Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Nia Long, Joy Bryant

Tag line: "A father. A son. A revolution"

Trivia:  Troy Garity appears uncredited as the singer Donovan

Melvin Van Peebles was the first African-American filmmaker to take on the system, and his 1971 independent movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, literally broke the Hollywood mold. Up to that point, African Americans, as seen in a variety of motion pictures over the years, were little more than background characters, happily existing in a usually all-white environment. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song dragged its audience into the ghetto, focusing on an entirely different black experience. Thanks in part to a mobilization of the Black Panthers, which urged its members to get out and support the film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song went on to become the top grossing independent movie of 1971. 

Baadasssss! (aka How To Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass) is a dramatized account of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, taking us from the film's creative beginnings to its historic premiere at a small Detroit theater. It proved a difficult journey for its director, Melvin Van Peebles (played here by his son, Mario). To begin with, the major studios wouldn’t touch Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, fearing it was far too radical for a mainstream audience, and even Melvin’s agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), strongly advised him to drop the idea of a film about a black revolutionary. Ignoring this advice, Melvin decided to raise the money for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song himself, yet more problems would arise when the initial financiers he lined up pulled out of the project. His back against the wall, Melvin had little choice but to invest his own money to complete the film. In conjuncture with the financial burdens it presented, Melvin also had to handle the editing of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, despite the fact he was rapidly losing his vision in one eye. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was then saddled with the dreaded "X" rating by the MPAA, and because of this, only two theaters in the entire country would play the film. Melvin Van Peebles had sunk everything he had into this movie, and its reception would determine whether or not he was financially bankrupt as a result. The rest, as they say, is history. 

In Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles captures the creative energy and rabid determination of his famous father, yet, because he's telling this story from an eyewitness’s point of view (as a child, Mario was on set for much of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), he also avoids many of the usual biographical pitfalls, refusing to paint Melvin as a larger than life individual. Instead, Mario allows his father’s true personality to explode on-screen. As seen in Baadasssss!, Melvin Van Peebles could, at times, be nasty and overbearing, yet despite his shortcomings, we ultimately recognize him as a true cinematic pioneer. Melvin Van Peebles may have had a short fuse, and was certainly not the most loving father, but he did have a vision, and possessed the right amount of drive and determination to make it a reality. 

There was power in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and that power is successfully recaptured in Baadasssss! by his son, Mario. Often funny and sometimes sad, Baadasssss! is a must-see for movie fanatics.

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