Before I start reviewing Baaddasss I feel I should talk about how I feel about Blaxploitation movies. Whether they helped African Americans by giving them a place in film, or hurt them by reinforcing thuggish stereotypes is something we could argue about until the cows came home. But just taken as movies plain and simple, with no political or societal implications, they by far and large suck. As always there are exceptions to the rule, sometimes as in Coffy, or The Harder They Come the sheer force of personality makes these films work, most of the time this is simply not the case. Hell lets take Shaft a bonafide classic. Have you ever seen that movie? And I don’t mean caught a second of it on cable one time I mean have you ever sat down and watched Shaft from beginning to end? It’s awful! Sure Roundtree is just the epitome of cool, and Issac Hayes music kicks ass, and that’s all anyone ever remembers, but on its own the film is horrid. The action is embarrassing, the story manages to be extremely convoluted and extremely stupid, all the actors are awful (once again Roundtree excused), the writing is beyond belief, and scenes just seem to randomly start and stop without any actual beginnings or endings. It’s horrid, but hey play the ba-da-dum-da-da-dum-ba-da-da-ba-bum, and chances are your 80 year old granny will start to smile. Yes nostalgia has helped these films immensely, and trust me Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song is no exception. To say it is rough is to slight roughness, and to say its small minded and misogynist is quite possibly the understatement of the century. This does not change the fact that the film was a major social accomplishment, the first film made by a nearly all black cast and crew, and lets face it, if you want to play the moralism game its a far more fair-minded cinematic beginning then Birth of A Nation.
Baaddasss is the story of what Melvin Van Peebles, played by his son Mario who also directed and co wrote, did to get Sweetback made. Melvin worked in the all white Hollywood establishment for too damn long trying to get films made, and quite frankly it made him a little crazy. After he establishes some small amount of success in the racial comedy The Watermelon Man, about a bigot who suddenly wakes up a black man, he decides to gamble it all on a little film he dreamed of in the desert called Sweet Sweetbacks’s Badass Song. What follows is a beautifully affectionate, yet clear eyed tribute to Melvin Van Peebles from his son, and a political film that never quite works. Indeed just about anytime politics come into play the film shudders to a halt. This is a tribute and it is fitting that tributes be enthusiastic, but the film acts as though Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song was the single greatest achievement of the civil rights era, which is needless to say significantly less clear eyed then the work on Melvin.
But the work on Melvin is clear eyed and truly great and that is really all that matters. Mario plays Melvin like a man possessed with need to get his vision out and truly do something for Black people. He doesn’t let anything stop him; he loses his eyesight, runs out of film stock, has various members of his cast and crew arrested on him, and cannot find a distributor who will touch the film with a ten foot pole. However, it is also shown that Melvin could be frankly an asshole, an adulterer on his loving wife (excellently played by Nia Long), a strict irrational father who questionably cast his 13 year old son (Mario himself) as a kid who gets around the whorehouses in the opening scenes of Sweetback, and prone to violent bursts of temper, as when he beats the living hell out of the his editor for threatening to walk out. All of this is seen with a clear unblinking eye that seeks neither to explain nor excuse Melvin, and it is a testament to Mario Van Peeble’s great performance that we feel that we get him anyway. Mario’s performance is matched by Khelo Thomas who is playing Mario (got all that?). He honestly shows all the hurt and pain and love that goes into anyone’s relationship with their father, and he deserves a large part of the credit for making this film work so well.
The film was shot on digital video and the rough style suits the film well, much like the bottom of the line film that Melvin used served him well. Other things though don’t serve Baaddasss that well. I’ve already mentioned how overblown and out of whack most of the political stuff is, there are also Lynch style things that come out of nowhere, and American Splendor style pieces where the participants talk to the camera like a regular documentary. I can not explain to you how totally and utterly these sections don’t work, and by the end of the film whenever I spotted one coming my eyes literally began to glaze over. However, these are quibbles and don’t make up the majority of the movie which works wonderfully.
So whatever your opinion of Blaxploitation in general or Sweetback in specific, go see Baaddassss. Van Peebles has created electrifying cinema by sticking to the truth about his Dad.