- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

In last winter’s “Big Fish,” Albert Finney wove a lifetime of tall tales that drove his son, Billy Crudup, to distraction. Mario Van Peebles grew up feeling like a little fish himself compared to his father, avant-garde filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles.

It took the son filming the true story behind his father’s black-empowerment film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” to realize that the tales he was raised on weren’t so tall after all.

“When I did the research, I found out he did really meet all these people,” Mario Van Peebles said during a recent visit to the District to promote his take on that moment in cinematic lore, “Baadasssss!” “All these stories were real.”

And what a story the making of “Sweetback” turned out to be, artistically eclipsing in nearly every way the original film.

Melvin Van Peebles overcame sketchy financing, crew arrests, prop near-disasters and a film industry not exactly eager to shoot stories of ghetto heroes to create a film that broke new ground in American cinema.

The film initially was shown in just two theaters, but its success forced more movie houses to open up space on their marquees. Despite a fuzzy score and amateur-hour acting, “Sweetback” went on to become the highest-grossing independent feature of 1971.

It’s impossible to view the movie today without squinting through the lens of racial history. The character of Sweetback, underplayed with stone-faced reserve by Melvin Van Peebles, is a sexually charged black man who dares to revolt against racist police officers.

You can count the number of films back then with such a lead character on one hand with fingers to spare.

The new film adapts Melvin Van Peebles’ book detailing the shoot, also named “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” In it, he described the death threats he faced for putting such a story on the big screen, the financial restraints squeezing every day’s shoot and how he flew under the Hollywood radar by telling anyone who asked that he was shooting a pornographic film.

Mario Van Peebles admits he made his film under far easier circumstances. That didn’t help him escape the modern studio system.

The first note back from a potential studio was to make it more for a white independent audience in the casting. The next suggestions asked him to introduce more hip-hop elements to appease black audiences.

“And in all the notes, it said, ‘Make Melvin more likeable,’” he says, something both father and son quickly agreed wouldn’t fly.

The Melvin Van Peebles in “Sweetback” pushes friends and strangers too hard, brings himself to the brink of physical exhaustion and casts a young Mario in a sex scene that would make most parents cringe.

Mario Van Peebles opted to go independent to keep the story real.

Like father, like son.

He shot his film in 18 days, one fewer than his father needed to wrap “Sweetback.”

In comparison, Mario Van Peebles got 36 days to shoot his well-received directorial debut, “New Jack City” (1991).

The son came up with the idea for “Baadasssss!” while shooting 2001’s “Ali.” Cast as Malcolm X, he routinely mixed it up on set with the former heavyweight champ, who regaled him with tales of his father’s younger days.

From those dialogues emerged a forceful point. “Ali was one of the first athletes to use the ring not just to box but to stand for something, an ideal,” Mario Van Peebles says.

“Melvin Van Peebles was the first filmmaker, in a way, who used the silver screen not just to make entertainment but to stand for something … something that would change not just what the movies looked like but who would be making the movies,” he says.

Today, Mario Van Peebles’ chiseled features seem a cosmetic improvement upon his father’s, whose face evoked untold sadness throughout “Sweetback.”

Still, the son fills in admirably for his father, biting down on a soggy cigar in nearly every scene and fleshing out his obsession to make his film, his way.

Melvin Van Peebles, who joined his son to spread the “Baadasssss!” word, says he simply worked within the capitalistic system with his film.

“If I could make an economic success, then everything would follow from there,” he says.

The elder Mr. Van Peebles, looking like a wizened jazz player who’s still got chops, remembers every detail of the “Sweetback” shoot. “If you look down a barrel of a gun,… you don’t forget it,” he says.

It didn’t have to be so hard for the multitalented Melvin Van Peebles.

After the young director shot “Watermelon Man” (1970), a popular satire in which a white businessman wakes up one morning to find himself turned black, the studios were eager to work with him.

So long as the project suited their needs, that is.

“Sweetback” was the last thing they had in mind.

“I would have loved to do anything easy, but if you’re shooting the film [you want] but you’re worried about the ending and how it’s going to be re-cut, then you’re not enjoying the process,” he says.

Mario Van Peebles used the same locations his father did to shoot “Baadasssss!” which led to an intriguing run-in one day.

The director recalls that an onlooker, watching him scamper down a concrete embankment just as his father did three decades ago, pointed to the actor-director and cried: “Hey, Sweetback’s back. He came back just like he said.”

Mario Van Peebles made sure of that.

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