Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Was Revolutionary on Every Level

The story of the production is lovingly, and unflinchingly, told in Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 film Baadasssss!, which was originally titled “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass.” In the biofilm Melvin Van Peebles pitches a story about a live sex show performer working out of a Los Angeles whorehouse who becomes radicalized. The studio withdraws its offer, and Melvin hits the streets looking for independent backing, nonunion crews, and nonprofessional actors. He ultimately finds his delivery system in a porn producer, played by David Alan Grier.

We can trust Baadasssss! in its accuracy, Mario Van Peebles is Melvin’s son, and plays his father in the film, just like he did in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The pornographic connection also resonates because Mario was 13 years old when he played the young Sweetback in the flashback segment which opens the film. The scene was censored in reissues because of the Protection of Children Act. Nonetheless, the production got around unions by disguising itself as a porn film, and was initially rated X by the MPAA when it first came out. Some theaters trimmed up to 9 minutes of sex before projecting the film. Ever an enterprising showman, Melvin Van Peebles used that to his advantage, hyping the movie as “Rated X by an all-white jury!” in promotions.

“No charge if you don’t like it!”

Melvin Van Peebles has been criticized for pushing the racist stereotype of the Black stud, but Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is as much an incursion in the sexual revolution as it is in civil disobedience. The counterculture guerilla war isn’t only about burning cop cars to cheering crowds, it includes the erotic socialism of the era’s radical cinema. The film opens with sexual suspense: Close-ups of women hungrily eyeing a young African American boy as he eats. They don’t want what’s on his plate, though. The very next scene shows him come of age as a sexual prodigy. Sweetback grew up in a cathouse, where he was on the menu for the female clientele. This also establishes Sweetback as submissive sexually, even though he is the character who holds the most power in the film.

The next scene further subverts the sexuality. The establishing shot shows two women putting on an erotic live performance for an appreciative audience. One of the women is wearing men’s clothes, as well as a fake beard and a hat, before she strips down to just a bra. During the on-stage sex act, they are visited by “the good dyke fairy godmother,” an effeminate man who waves his magic wand and turns the bearded lady into Sweetback. Van Peebles blurs the lines of magic, reality and sexual identity. This is reversed later in the film when the biker gang remove their helmets and are revealed to be women. The director subverts the myths of black masculinity further by having Sweetback sexually submit into power after being forced to service them all before they let him go. 

Van Peebles maintains he played the title role himself because no established Black actor would work for what he could pay, and because the character only has six lines of dialogue. He also couldn’t afford a stunt man, so Melvin performed all of the stunts himself, which also included appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes. The cinematic social commentator contracted a social disease during filming, and successfully applied to the Directors Guild for workers’ compensation because he was “hurt on the job,” according to Darius James’s 1995 book That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury). The director used the money to buy more film stock.

When Van Peebles started out in film, he figured he “could make a feature for five hundred dollars” because “that was the cost of 90 minutes of film,” according to James’ book. When the director was young and couldn’t break into a segregated Hollywood with his early short films, Van Peebles was invited to Paris by Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française. He released the short film Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs) in 1961. Van Peebles taught himself the language and wrote a number of books in French. One of which he adapted into his 1968 feature debut The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which starred Harry Baird as Turner, an African American soldier stationed in France. He is granted a promotion and a three-day leave by his racist commanding officer. The film explores the psychology of an interracial relationship, while critiquing racial attitudes in France.

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