Retro Review: Sweet Sweetback ‘s Badasssss Song
Tragically there was a time in film history where if audiences wanted to see an African American prominently featured onscreen and the towering dramatic performances of Sidney Poitier did not appeal to them, they were largely out of luck. This game was changed in 1971 when filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles; wrote directed, produced, and starred in the groundbreaking cult classic Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. With this independent flick, Van Peebles created what is known as the blaxpoitation genre and changed cinema forever.
Notorious gigolo Sweetback faces a moral dilemma when he is a party to two white police detectives beating a young black man. Unable to take it, an incensed Sweetback violently attacks the cops with their own handcuffs, instantly making him public enemy number one. Knowing his only hope in salvation lies south of the border in Mexico, this is the direction he heads. Along the way he is hounded by law enforcement working for a comically anxious police commissioner. While on the lam, Sweetback can rely on the help of friends and associates in the inner city and beyond who build up his status as a folk hero in the black community.
Naturally being the star AND overall creative force behind the film, Melvin Van Peeble indulges himself with the character he portrays onscreen. Sweetback is a macho machismo-filled sexual dynamo. His protagonist opts on the side of the cool strong silent type relying on his presence to communicate for him. This proves incredibly successful as the characters he crosses paths while on the run are colorful and talkative enough to balance out his brooding quieter nature. Of course no talk of this film can be complete without mentioning the controversy of Van Peeble’s son and future filmmaker Mario making his screen debut. Wanting to establish how badass the antihero was even as a kid, 13 year old Mario played a young Sweetback who loses his virginity to a prostitute. This scene caused quite a stir and was even edited out of the British release of the film. This is largely why Sweet Sweetback is not a film for everyone, as it sets the precedent for what it to come in the rest of the flick. Whether good, bad, or very ugly, Melvin Van Peeble’s camera does not shy away from anything.
For the visual language of Sweet Sweetback largely goes with a dark and gritty neo-noir style. To be perfectly honest this fits the tone of the film and the story perfectly as with most great noirs we as the audience are put into a position to root for an antihero, though this antihero is making a stand for something bigger than himself. Van Peeble’s style is especially effective at night where we see a dark inner city bathed in neon lights. It is not hard to be reminded of James Wong Howe’s legendary work in Sweet Smell of Success. That being said, Van Peebles also adds some great 70’s experimental flourishes. The use of various bombastic color grading and quick edits
For all controversy this movie created Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song is a movie which won over audiences in a big way and still carries a cult following to this day. While it may carry it’s reputation as a mere grindhouse film, this movie singlehandedly changed cinema. Immediately following it’s success other movies began to prominently feature African American talents giving rise to the famed blaxpoitation sub genre. Melvin Van Peebles blazed a trail which has been followed by the likes of; Rudy Ray Moore, Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Ryan Coogler.