Some movies are like discovering, in the attic, a box with brittle, eight-millimeter film footage shot by a long-dead relative. The movie is grainy, the camerawork is amateurish, and the color is faded – but the content is fascinating. Hey, who knew that your Uncle Zack was such a wild guy?
Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song is like that. Everything corny and dated about 1970s cinema is on display: self-conscious, artsy camera angles; reverse negatives; split screens; cheesy music; clunky fashion and some god-awful acting. But the movie is never dull. In fact, were it made today, some of it might be downright illegal.
Sweetback was embraced in 1971 by the Black Panther Party and other militants because of its ostensible message of “sticking it to The Man.” Van Peebles, who wrote, produced, and directed, also stars as Sweetback, a black street hustler who rebels against the oppressive white establishment in Los Angeles. He assaults some cops and spends the rest of the movie on the run – that’s the plot. But it’s Sweetback’s outrageous sex scenes, not so much its politics, which resonate 40 years later.
The film opens in a whorehouse. Young Sweetback (played by Van Peebles’s real son, Mario, then 14 and decidedly underage) loses his virginity to one of the working girls in a bizarre scene in which the woman simulates passionate sex while young Mario seems to be thinking, “What the hell?” In a jump-cut, Mario is replaced from his position between the woman’s legs by father Melvin.
In an interview about his X-rated movie, the elder Van Peebles is refreshingly honest about “my most infamous scene”: “The critics are giving me credit for this scene as ‘a well-thought-out metaphor, a tableau of the rites of passage.’ That wasn’t what happened. The truth of the matter is … I was just being my horny self,” he says. “What the hell, I’m only human.”
That’s evident in several later scenes, especially in what is likely Sweetback’s second-most infamous sequence, when Van Peebles does some unsimulated pumping of a white biker chick in front of an appreciative crowd of Hells Angels. Uncle Zack was never that outrageous. Grade: C+
Director: Melvin Van Peebles Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan, Rhetta Hughes, John Amos, Niva Rochelle, Lavelle Roby, Mario Van Peebles, Sonja Dunson, Marria Evonee, Joni Watkins, Maggie Bembry Release: 1971
Watch the Trailer (click here)
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