Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is so bizarre, sexually depraved and narratively aimless with a leading man so wooden that at times it barely qualifies as a movie. It also has the force of a strike of lightning, an energy that lands like a bass drum beat to your temple. Like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) and the other movies of the initial crest of the French New Wave, Baadasssss Song announced a new movement, Blaxploitation, one that would save the floundering film industry and make the black audience a viable economic force. Like every forerunner of a new age, Baadasssss Song would make classical film construction cringe but that’s its point: To deconstruct the old order, announce the new one and represent a type of rebellion, and rebellion is rarely pretty.
The movie opens with a title card of a traditional prologue of the Dark Ages extolling that what the viewer is about to see is the truth, then a title card flashes that reads, “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.” From there the movie becomes a pornographic, hallucinatory revolution on celluloid.
When we first meet Sweet Sweetback, he’s a child being raised in a brothel. In a stunningly brash sequence we watch one of the prostitutes making a man out of the boy, leading right into the adult Sweetback (Van Peebles) making love to the same woman (this sequence truly pushes the boundaries of good taste when one realizes that the boy is played by Van Peebles’ son, Mario, giving a disgusting twist to the idea of the boy being the father of the man). Thanks to his early practice, as an adult, Sweetback becomes renowned for his erotic acumen and he is the star attraction at an underground sex club. A pair of crooked detectives come in to take someone to round out a police line-up they are putting together and Sweetback is requested to go with them. On their way to the station, the cops pick up a disturbance signal and follow it to Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), a known agitator. Without cause, the police begin beating Mu-Mu as Sweetback watches. Soon enough, Sweetback can’t stand the injustice and uses his handcuffs as brass knuckles and chokers to beat up the pigs and escape with Mu-Mu. The rest of the movie follows Sweetback’s avoidance of the law and other snares, often with him using his prodigious carnal skills as his shield against danger.
Upon this simple escape story, Van Peebles mixes and matches techniques and tricks that contribute to the movie’s subversive impact but at the expense of narrative clarity. Sequences are repeated, disjointed editing obscures what’s going on and if you don’t like saxophone and keyboards repeating the same riff ad nauseum that’s too bad. The insistence of box and matting effects, quick cuts, jump cuts, lightning zooms and whip pans give the movie the feeling of a paranoid hellscape where nothing makes sense and puts us in the mind of Sweetback as he eludes his pursuers. But it also may be Van Peebles’ expression of the black experience in America, a disjointed, dangerous nightmare. It’s like an Amiri Baraka poem captured on film. That he can make this story comprehensible using this technique is a feat in itself (some of the movie, however, would benefit from more traditional filmmaking); that he can use it to such an exhilarating extent, is remarkable. It’s ironic that in tearing down the standards of classical film Van Peebles honors its origins, borrowing tricks from the earliest days of movies like iris shots to use as his wrecking ball (and though the motive is militant, some of these references have their tongues in their cheek, including a woman’s Afro early in the movie that seems to be inspired by Bride of Frankenstein ).
These techniques are tools in the movie’s war of defiance and unabashed pride. The opening credits fiercely announce “Starring: The Black Community.” Sweetback bumps off white cops without a second’s hesitation beforehand or a moment’s remorse afterward and generally accepts little from anyone. This type of black defiance had been seen on the screen before (rarely, but it had happened), but it was nearly always accompanied with a return to the conventional order in the end and the black transgressor is slapped down for his insolence. Baadasssss Song doesn’t have the patience for that. The movie chillingly ends with title cards that righteously pronounce, “Watch Out. A Baad Asssss Nigger Is Coming Back To Collect Some Dues.” As much as any could, here was a movie that distilled, internalized and projected the anger of 350 years of oppression and was unapologetic for it. The reaction from the public was arresting.
The story behind Baadassss Song is nearly as fascinating as the project itself. Van Peebles had some success in the mainstream industry but was disillusioned by the creative restraint he was under. He made his own movie for $500,000 and distributed it through a dying company that was able to get the movie on only two screens: one in Atlanta and one in Detroit, where it premiered. Shortly thereafter, those two theaters could hardly run the picture enough because of the intense demand, and the movie opened wide across the country and ended up grossing more than $10 million (Van Peebles, who’s savvy is legendary, was paid 50 percent of the gate for the movie once it made more than $5 million, a figure the distributors never dreamed it would attain). The palpable rebellion on the screen is what kept audiences coming back, but Van Peebles, who knew his film was facing an X rating from the film board, got audiences there in the first place by intentionally withholding the film for a rating, receiving an automatic X and marketing the movie as “Rated X by an all-white jury.” The searing anger of the movie caught the attention of the Black Panthers, who idolized it, but the huge rate of return piqued mainstream Hollywood, who wanted a piece of the pie Van Peebles showed them existed.
Baadasssss Song came complete with a popular soundtrack (the music was by Van Peebles but was performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, in one of their first recordings) and when Hollywood made their entries they came with soul records made specifically for the films. By the time Shaft (1971, with an album by Isaac Hayes) and Superfly (1972, with its music by Curtis Mayfield), hit theaters Blaxploitation was a cultural movement that lasted nearly till the end of the decade.
Baadasssss Song represents the high-water mark for the genre, however, not on artistic terms necessarily (certainly the big studio entries have more polish and the Richard Roundtrees and Pam Griers outdo Van Peebles for onscreen charisma [as Sweetback, Van Peebles seems tired, as if he wasted all his energy on the myriad other things he was involved with on the film]). But Baadasssss Song is the one whose message is most potent, most intact. The genre en masse is criticized for ennobling black images as gangsters, crooks and pimps, a critique that doesn’t spare Baadasssss Song, but the movie is honoring attitudes not professions. The argument is that many of the Hollywood offerings that followed it understood the music and not the rhythm and presented the action without the anger.
In Joe Angio’s documentary about Van Peebles How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005), Mario relates a sentiment that Congressman Bobby Rush relayed to him about his father. “’One of the things your father’s film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song did was it made being a revolutionary hip and the Panthers made being a revolutionary hip but Superfly made being a drug dealer hip.’” Although its followers couldn’t replicate its wild disobedience (and more than a few even worked against its subversive message), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a watershed of independent filmmaking and filmed revolution.