In the tradition of Day for Night, Ed Wood, and Bowfinger, Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! is a film about filmmaking, lovingly told with a reverence for the craft; budget, script, and even talent be damned. Mario is telling his father Melvin’s story, but as Mario was on the set and even participated in a sex scene (at the tender age of thirteen), he too understands the frustrations, hassles, and burdens that making a film brings about. And it’s one thing to have millions of dollars at one’s disposal, but when one must scrape and fight for every cent (and where each day of shooting could be the last), the finished product, regardless of its quality, is forevermore looked upon as a labor of love. The film in question, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, remains an important film in that in opened the door for “Blacksploitation,” or “soul cinema” (and the independent scene, to a large extent), but having seen it several years ago, I cannot defend its value as art. So, like Ed Wood’s tale of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Baadasssss! proves that a film can be dreadful, and yet the story of its production can be insightful, funny, important and entertaining as hell.
Putting the creative process on film is always a difficult task, largely because that very process is often minimized. “Inspiration” often seems to come much too easily and the boredom, endless waiting, and compromises are usually sacrificed for a smoother narrative flow. As such, we often watch films about films with a combination of awe, respect, and arrogance, as we conclude that if these jokers can get it done, why can’t we? Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song sure as hell ain’t The Godfather, so perhaps most viewers could construct something of similar quality, but would it contain the same amount of passion? What Van Peebles might lack in innate talent, he more than makes up in obsessive dedication, proving that art, even bad art, requires little more than the driving engine of self-absorption. For Melvin is an egomaniac, sacrificing his family, his health, and his financial well-being to bring his vision to the screen. And while it is impossible to get a sense of how important a film like Sweet Sweetback ever was, Baadasssss! does capture that era in the best possible way. In the end, we see that having a leading man — a leading black man — get away with killing white cops is practically a declaration of war.
Baadasssss! works so well because it balances the love of film with an important, and refreshingly restrained, social statement. Van Peebles — then and now — seeks to correct decades of racist cinema that never gave blacks the opportunity to speak with their own voice. Blacks were deferential, loyal, obedient, and often silly, but never dangerous. Melvin sought to vanquish that unforgivable error by pushing the debate to the other extreme — a black man who is sexual, self-confident, and unapologetic. The world is on his terms, which even the top black stars of the period rarely approached. A black man, for example, could be tough and sassy, but there always had to be some form of redemption. Sweetback, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit. If you fucked with him, he’d put his foot in your ass. It means little now when white people are often made to look like clueless dipshits, but in the Age of Nixon, that kind of shit could get you an FBI file.
It is a given that any representation of “guerilla filmmaking” will involve numerous scenes of begging for cash, but we accept such clichés because that is indeed the nature of the business. Peebles bounced checks, spent rent money, and had meeting after meeting with shady folks (including an all-too-convincing Adam “Batman” West as a flaming queen producer), all in order to fund his non-commercial project. At every turn, sources of funding were promised only to dry out, and producers are jailed mere days before the cameras start running. Eventually, Melvin receives a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby of all people, ensuring that the film will see the light of day. But Melvin still needs a distributor, and there are very few theaters willing to exhibit an X-rated movie. Finally, the film is released in Detroit; a collection of scenes that does bring out the “darkness before the dawn” cliché. Thinking the film has bombed, Melvin retreats to a bar across the street from the theater. However, we learn that the Black Panther who left early was not disgusted, but rather on a mission to bring dozens of friends and comrades back to check out this “revolutionary” work. Before long, the theater is jammed and there are lines around the block.
It is not necessary to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to have a good time with Baadasssss!, although it might help to put some of the on-set episodes into perspective. Still, it is abundantly clear that the film – as shoestring as any ever made – is far from high quality. As I said, I remember the film as a cheap, run-of-the-mill blaxploitation picture with poor sound, atrocious acting, and cheesy effects, but I now stand corrected, at least in terms of the “run-of-the-mill” part. Despite its low-budget nature, it did set the culture on fire, changing attitudes, marketing, and cinematic style, much in the same way that Easy Rider served to highlight the plight of pot smoking hippies everywhere. Or maybe it’s just a simple case of having an enormous amount of respect for anyone who presses on, especially when the rest of the world tells you that you’re full of shit. Cinema could use such radicals; now, more than ever.