- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

In paying tribute to his father, a pioneering guerrilla filmmaker of the early ‘70s, director Mario Van Peebles pulls off quite a hat trick.

He acts as his own father, Melvin Van Peebles, in a way that’s daringly disinterested and unsentimental, and yet still heroic. He captures the idealism of the new indie film movement in a comic spirit that’s neither preachy nor self-congratulatory.

Last, and most impressive, Mr. Van Peebles treats his younger self, portrayed here at 12 years old by Khleo Thomas, with astonishing understatement.

Young Mario, loved and damaged by his freewheeling father, lurks on the margins of a bigger story, and Mr. Van Peebles never indulges the temptation to inflate himself or untruthfully widen a child’s perspective.

“Baadasssss!” is a stylized restaging — it incorporates archival footage and fake documentary clips — of the elder Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a low-budget, funk-rock hymn to black defiance and sexuality that birthed the blaxploitation era.

The 1971 movie was radical in its message and, more lastingly, in its method.

A year after directing “Watermelon Man,” a safe, successful satire, Melvin Van Peebles decided to go it alone: He kissed off the big studios, the unions, the moneybags and the ratings board to make an X-rated movie that no reputable distributor, and only two exhibitors, would even touch — to the unquenchable heartburn of his agent (Saul Rubinek).

Mr. Van Peebles was forced to enlist the crew of a porno-flick director (played by a daintily wacky David Alan Grier); for cash, he plundered his own savings, overdrew on his checking account and begged from everyone he knew — including a certain groundbreaking black comedian, Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter) — for the rest.

After “Sweetback,” the movie biz would never be the same, and it’s needless to say that the careers of Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles himself (“New Jack City,” “Posse”) owe a debt to “Sweetback.”

Mr. Van Peebles, the son, moves at a pace that’s true to his father’s high-wire act. “Baadasssss!” rides like a fast car making a hairpin turn.

It could’ve been funnier and more poignant — if it had more time. But there are car explosions to film and creditors to fend off and reels of tape to edit and coffee to drink.

Mr. Van Peebles nearly worked himself blind to pull off “Sweet Back,” and his son doesn’t flinch from counting the costs of his father’s monomania.

Mario is psychologically commanding in his father’s shoes, and the film’s only major flaw is the use of a trick double of Melvin’s character to illustrate the director’s repressed fear of failure.

That, and a quick word of praise for “Sweetback’s” motley crew of blacks, Hispanics and hippies, are the only moments of self-seriousness in “Baadasssss!”

A plumper-than-ever Sally Struthers drops by for a cameo, as does the great Adam West. (What could be more ironically “Baadasssss!” than Adam West?)

It’s this sense of depreciating silliness that makes “Baadasssss!” feel significant, and true.

***

TITLE: “Baadasssss!”

RATING: R (Pervasive profanity; sexuality; nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Mario Van Peebles. Executive produced by Michael Mann. Produced by Bruce Wayne Gillies, Dennis Haggerty, G. Marq Roswell and Mr. Van Peebles. Screenplay by Mr. Van Peebles and Mr. Haggerty, based on Melvin Van Peebles’ book “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Cinematography by Robert Primes. Music by Tyler Bates.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclas-sics.com/badass

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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