Continuing my quest to watch every movie in the Los Angeles Library catalog.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
So last night I sat down to watch the legendary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. If you are a movie fan, a fan of 1970s films, or a genre/exploitation movie aficionado you have heard of this movie. Before Robert Rodriguez used his one-man-band approach to moviemaking, Melvin Van Peebles produced, wrote, directed, played the lead character, and composed the music for SSBS.
Seeing as there were no movies made by black filmmakers and crews for black audiences showing the black experience Van Peebles set out to make one. It has the thinnest of plots: a black man, who kills two cops who are brutalizing another black man, runs for the safety of the Mexican border while eluding the LAPD. That’s it. And it’s a piece of shit. Yes, that’s right, a pos. The majority of the movie is Sweetback running – through the streets, the desert, the woods – and having sex. And for an “x-rated” movie, extremely laughable sex: Sweetback gets on top of a woman and doesn’t move at all or make a sound, while the woman is writhing in ecstasy. Sweetback looks extremely bored, like he’s thinking of doing his taxes (“Which form is best for “sex worker” and how do I itemize my sex toys as deductions?”).
What little story there is is so poorly told by the amateur crew with little to no resources. There is no notion of decent composition, night scenes appear to have been lit by flashlight (you could only see about three feet of any one thing), the acting by the amateur cast is laughable (Van Peebles’ Sweetback only says about a half dozen words in the whole movie), the “jump cuts” seem to indicate a lack of film rather than any true storytelling technique, the montage scenes with the crazy colors and psychedelic effects are a lame attempt to make the film “artsy.”
There is of course the infamous scene where Van Peebles used his own son, a scrawny then-13 year old Mario, to portray the young (pre-teen?) Sweetback losing his virginity to a 20-something prostitute. Why the authorities didn’t make a big stink, or even a little stink, out of this, while going bananas a few years later over Roman Polanski’s having sex with a 13 year old white girl shows the ethics double standard between blacks and whites (yes, Mario wasn’t raped, but he WAS exploited by his own father, who when asked by Tavis Smiley about the scene supposedly answered, “Well, it obviously didn’t hurt the boy.” Father of the Year right there).
The hype and hoopla in and surrounding this movie pushed it into the history books: in the movie, title cards read “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of The Man” and at the end “Watch out, a baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues.” “Rated X By An All White Jury” screamed the posters
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was important because Melvin Van Peebles used blacks and minorities as his crew and actors, when the majority of films from major studios used whites in front of and behind the camera. It was important because it was made for a black audience when no major studio was making films for anyone but the white majority. But truth be told, the making of the film is much more interesting than the final product, which is so wacky that it ushered in the blaxploitation craze of the 1970s. A few years ago, Mario Van Peebles made Baadasssss!, a great film about the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, with Mario coming full circle and playing his father. The legend of SSBS is better than the real thing.
Watch Baadasssss! And leave Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on the video shelf for film historians.