You can make a case for any film regardless of its shortcomings, or in the case of Sweet Sweetback’sBaadasssss Song, its disregard for craftsmanship in favor of uncontrolled and coarse protest. Sweetback was written, produced and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. In the absence of a suitable lead, he cast himself as the titular Sweetback, a black hero resisting The Man, mostly by running away from him.
Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a graphic, discordant, low-brow frenzy of noise believing itself to be a landmark, dissenting voice of its time.And it doesn’t ease into its rhetoric.We’re ushered in by a starving and destitute 10-year old Sweetback wolfing down a meal in a brothel while a group of prostitutes fuss over him. Moments later, he’s coerced into sex with one of them while a choral rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine” plays. Audiences with the mettle to stay beyond that point are led to the (then) present day, where the adult Sweetback is now a sex showman displaying his generous genitalia and performing live porn shows for a living. He cuts his career short when he pummels two white police to death for beating down a Black Panther, and carries out an arduous escape to the Mexican border.
Van Peebles credits his cast as ‘The Black Community’ and dedicates the film to “all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”. This cinematic offering however is a manic mishmash of footage passing itself off as “experimental” cinema. Melvin stated that he approached this film “. He tossed everything in alright: cross dissolves, freeze frames, lens flares, shaky cam, dizzy cam, cuts to black, severed sound effects, negro spirituals, chants, and an Earth, Wind and Fire score played to within an inch of its life.
In the first act a mute and empty-eyed Sweetback fucks, fights and stares into space like he’d rather be in another movie, until the running starts. And then, on it goes. Looooong after we get what’s happening. For over half of the screen time he sprints and staggers, leaps and crawls through streets and alleyways, crackhouses and storm drains, hills and deserts. All along, he staves off thirst (by drinking from puddles!), hunger (by decapitating lizards and eating!), injury (by sanitizing his wounds with his baadasssss urine!) and the trigger-happy police (by running faster! and leaping from bridges! and f*cking some more!).When we gratefully get to the end, where Sweetback crosses the Tijuana, and warns of his return to collect his (still unspecified) dues, the narrative has been simple enough. The Man subjugates the black man, and the black warrior rises to fight back. How? By murdering, and f*cking, and running.
Coarseness and effrontery aside, however, this film possesses a categorical value. Van Peebles committed an act of unheard-of audacity by depicting the brutal murder of white bad guys by a black good guy in 1971 America. He’s an obnoxious and unafraid filmmaker despite—and likely because of—his unrefined sensibilities. What he lacks in proficiency, he compensates with abstraction and consciousness. The policemen’s murder is jaggedly juxtaposed with solarized footage of a hulking oil derrick, like a vast machine is under threat. A preacher appears to offer up‘black Ave Marias’ for Sweetback, and by extension, all black people. Peebles even displays pragmatism by introducing a group of Hells Angels who not only spare Sweetback’s life (after he beds their white female leader, no less), but also grant him the chance to make good his escape, an offer he benevolently passes on to the Black Panther he had earlier rescued.
This film has fought its way into history. It continues to be studied as an epoch-making work. It grossed millions, shifted perceptions about blackness, spawned a film genre, and sparked conversations that 1971 society desperately needed to have. Still, here we are decades later, in Post-Baadasssss, Post-Rodney King, Post-Treyvon Martin, Obama-led America, and the jury is still out on how much progress has been made.
Just because it made the statement it was meant to make, Sweet Sweetback’sBaadasssss Song cannot be passed off as a carefully crafted piece of art. Brash and uncultured work cannot be celebrated as auteur or innovative. Melvin Van Peebles has entered into cinema history because he was a filmmaker of great courage, relevance, and innovation. But not because he was any good.