Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! is not only a wonderful tribute to a very important filmmaker, but also one of the most important all-around films that I have seen in quite some time. It is so refreshing to see a film with not one wasted second, beautiful acting, and a total understanding of its source material.
And how could it not have a great understanding of its source material? This is, after all, Mario Van Peebles’ tribute to his father, Melvin. In 1971, Melvin released Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, a film that would change the movie making business as we know it. A story revolving around an African American vigilante was unheard of at the time, and Van Peebles brought it to the screen in all of its raw power – and with very little money. The film opened in only two cities before gaining support from the Black Panthers and eventually becoming a nationwide box office success. But do not be fooled into thinking this was an easy process.
The vast majority of Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! examines the difficulties his father had getting the film made. No one wanted to finance it, much of the budget came straight out of Melvin’s pocket, and no studio in their right mind wanted to distribute it. It was a horrible time to be African American and aspiring, but Melvin Van Peebles’ film would work wonders to help correct that.
The film begins shortly after the completion of the comedy Watermelon Man, Melvin’s film prior to Sweet Sweetback. The studios are clamoring to see what Melvin comes up with next. After many a sleepless night, he comes up with the idea of a black vigilante seeking vengeance on the law that has never been on his side. It was a groundbreaking idea for the time, but no studio wanted anything to do with it.
After much wheeling and dealing, Melvin assembles an amateur crew to help shoot the film. Problems abound, and many are far too entertaining to reveal in this review. It’s a miracle the film got made considering what was going against everyone involved. But it did.
Playing his father, Mario Van Peebles turns in easily one of the best performances of the year. Working from a screenplay written by himself and Dennis Haggerty, Mario is able to virtually transform into his father. After all, he was there, and even had a part in Sweet Sweetback. Mario’s emotional depth adds so much to this character, and we the audience are rooting him on all the way to the end. It is a true powerhouse performance, and very Oscar-worthy.
The supporting cast does a superb job. We have wannabe-actress secretary Priscilla (Bryant), security guy Big T (Crews), porn master Clyde Houston (Grier), and hippie producer Bill Harris (Wilson), among others. T.K. Carter even turns up as Bill Cosby, who would eventually write Melvin Van Peebles the check that would help finish the film. These are performances of love for the real-life counterparts that made the film possible. Everyone in this cast understands their roles and characters.
Mario Van Peebles’ direction is also stellar, with seamless use of his new footage, the original Sweet Sweetback film, and documentary-style head shots. The documentary ingredient to this film is inventive and appropriate, as we have the actors in the film sitting with a black background deciphering their roles in the production of Sweet Sweetback. These candid moments are often hilarious and add some real zeal to the film.
The film is also a tremendous accomplishment in terms of showing the audience the highs and lows of trying to make a film. It’s not all croissants and wine on the set of the latest Johnny Depp movie. This is gritty, sometimes ugly, film making.
Perhaps the film’s biggest accomplishment, unlike so many tribute films, is that it does not glorify Melvin Van Peebles’ personal life in any way. This is a man with faults, and to see a film made by his son bring out these faults is astounding to watch. It’s all done out of love, and when the end credits role, Melvin is a cinema hero who overcame the near-impossible to make a film statement.
And speaking of those closing credits, be sure to stick around as there are interviews with much of the real-life cast and crew of Sweet Sweetback as they are today. Bill Cosby makes an appearance, and be sure to stay until the very last frame. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
Baadasssss! will most likely be the crowning achievement of Mario Van Peebles’ career. It is a truly important examination of an important film and filmmaker. It is also a gift to the great Melvin Van Peebles. That alone is reason enough for everyone to see this film.
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language and some strong sexuality/nudity.
Theatrical Release: January 20, 2004 (Sundance Film Festival) / May 28, 2004 (Limited)
Directed by: Mario Van Peebles
Written by: Mario Van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty. Based upon the book “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” by Melvin Van Peebles.
Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Jon Bryant, T.K. Carter, Terry Crews, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier