Of the many joys in “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films,” the Criterion Collection’s eerily prescient new DVD box set reassessment of the Chicago Renaissance man — a veritable film-school semester on the Godfather of Black Cinema, who died last month at 89 — the joy you’re not expecting is the gaze of the man himself. “Self-possessed” doesn’t capture it. “Wary” can’t get across how Van Peebles appeared to move through the world. His thousand-yard stares contained thousand-yard stares. He presented himself, at a glance, as intimidating, slightly exhausted, perhaps confrontational. As Columbia University associate professor Racquel J. Gates writes in the book that comes with the box set, when they met in 2013 for an interview, he warned her: “I’m an (expletive) today,” then waited beside his apartment door “giving me the impression of someone standing guard,” she writes. He added: “You’re probably scared of me now.”© Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images North America/TNS Portrait of actor and author Melvin Van Peebles supervising the screen version of his novel "On Leave" on location in Paris, March 29, 1967.
“Sir,” she replied, “I’m from Chicago. (Expletives) don’t scare me.”
Challenge unlocked. Of course, Melvin Van Peebles had more than one look. The man himself contained multitudes rarely delved into, now nicely illustrated by Criterion. His signature steady stare, it revealed charms the longer you studied it. But to the world, he showed a flat, patient face that suggested he would not indulge idiots, endear himself to journalists or seek approval; he carried the confidence necessary of a pioneering Black filmmaker then — arguably the Black director from 1967 to 1972, the years primarily covered by this box set. The world knew him from “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” his 1971 provocation credited with launching the blaxploitation genre. But as his son Mario Van Peebles recounts in one of the set’s documentaries: Bobby Rush, former Black Panther, current Illinois congressman, once said that “Sweetback” made being a revolutionary hip, but blaxploitation films like “Superfly” made being a drug dealer hip.
Melvin Van Peebles aimed higher.
His curiosity and ready commitment to social justice — “Sweetback” was famously dedicated “to all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man” — never did suggest someone who was in it for money. At one end of “Essential Films,” you meet a trio of shorts he made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most striking, the black-and-white “Three Pickup Men for Herrick” (1957), shot a decade after leaving Chicago. Three men angle for day labor. That’s the entire story. It offers desolate cityscapes and an attention to everyday oppression that promises a young filmmaker steeped in the neorealism of Rossellini. Less than 20 years later, Van Peebles had already switched gears. He was onto “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” an exuberant adaptation of his own Broadway musical, about a house party. It’s the last word in the box set, and though it never feels like more than a recording of a stage production — which is really what it is — it’s also a reminder of how devoted Van Peebles was to telling ordinary stories of people of color. He lingers on faces, giving great songs (written by himself) room to wow. Like any good party, you feel happy, disoriented, buzzed then grateful. It plays now like a precursor to “Lovers Rock,” director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 2020 movie about a house party in which nothing at all happens, just another Saturday night.© Francois Durand/Getty Images North America/TNS Melvin van Peebles arrives at the "Lawless" Premiere during the 38th Deauville American Film Festival on Sept. 5, 2012, in Deauville, France.
Those are two versions of Van Peebles. Neither received enough attention in the many appreciations written about him in the past weeks. Instead, the better-known Van Peebles laid the groundwork for Black Hollywood (not entirely true) and was a grimly serious provocateur (only somewhat true). Yes, he titled his 1971 spoken-word album “As Serious as a Heart-Attack.” (He also recorded albums, and wrote books.) But as hard as he presented himself, he was often funny, generous with his time. When I was a much younger journalist, I cold-called him for an interview. I didn’t have his home number so I looked it up in the New York City phone book. It was listed. (This was the mid-’90s.) He didn’t pick up at first and his answering machine message was simply:
In everyday life, he didn’t take himself nearly as seriously as it appeared, Mario said in the lively 2005 documentary “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).” (Also included in this box set.) Rather, Melvin Van Peebles was a consummate marketer of Melvin Van Peebles, a master self-mythologizer — “a Black P.T. Barnum, not in a bad sense,” says critic Elvis Mitchell. In another conversation included in the boxset, writer Nelson George, talking to filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, describes Van Peebles always operating under the assumption that, in America, they try to scare you off or buy you off and he would not accept either. So he made himself as much of a draw as his films. When “Sweetback” received an X-rating, he marketed the film as “Rated X by an All-White Jury.” The poster tagline for “Watermelon Man” was “The Uppity Movie.” Earlier in his career, Spike Lee channeled Van Peebles’ savvy.
The difference being, off screen, unlike Lee, a film school graduate and child of an accomplished session musician, Van Peebles led a remarkably large, rangy life. He grew up in the pocket neighborhood of Phoenix, just south of Sibley Boulevard in Chicago's south suburbs. He attended high school in Harvey in the 1940s, as one of its few Black students. He worked as an Air Force navigator. He was a United States postal worker. For the “Sweetback” soundtrack, he found an unknown Chicago band named Earth, Wind & Fire. (In his memoir, co-founder Maurice White wrote that Van Peebles gave them a check for $500, which never cleared.) He studied literature at Ohio Wesleyan, then started an astronomy degree at the University of Amsterdam. In the 1980s, after his movie career slowed, he became the first Black trader for the New York Stock Exchange (later writing a how-to book: “Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market”).
Though “Sweetback” would ensure that he stayed synonymous with blaxploitation and tough-guy figures — for a time, it was the most successful independent movie ever made — Van Peebles’ first feature was a French New Wave foray, “The Story of a Three Day Pass.” Among its charms is a scene in which the leading man appears to float through a room. As Tribune critic Michael Phillips once noted: “It hits you like a ton of rolling bricks. The shot!” Yes, the very shot that Spike Lee now uses as his signature.
Van Peebles was using military experience as inspiration, to tell a story of a Black GI who has a weekend romance with white French woman. He made the film partly with help from a subsidy provided by the French government, where he was living in the 1960s. He had published novels and essays; he was considered an artist there, so they offered opportunity. Which meant when he arrived at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival with “The Story of a Three Day Pass,” he arrived as a representative of the French.
He had asked to work for Hollywood, he had approached the studios years earlier with the shorts included in this box set. He was told he could work for them as an elevator operator. He left for Europe. After that film festival, he was hired by Columbia Pictures.
“Melvin Van Peebles: Essential” offers the grounding the DVD format once promised. It’s a funny thing to write in 2021, a post-DVD world where streaming is standard. Yet Criterion, at least now among cinephiles, owns the format. The only good reason to have a DVD player today is the Criterion Collection, a New York-based video company that began in 1984 with Laserdiscs and became the gold standard of serious home libraries. As the cliche on Criterion goes: They deliver a film school in a box. The problem, as a New York Times story deftly explored last year, was there were more than a 1,000 films in the Criterion Collection, yet only four directed by Black filmmakers. As progressive a definition of “classic” as Criterion appeared to employ, it had blind spots.
Spike Lee, yes.
Melvin Van Peebles ... no?
A year later, as a long-admiring fan of the Criterion Collection — I once bought a Laserdisc player just to own their edition of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” — it’s hard not to notice that Black inclusion remains weak. But it’s improving: the 2000 cult gem “Love & Basketball,” the underrated documentaries of Marlon Riggs, Bill Duke’s 1992 noir “Deep Cover,” Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” all have received a canonizing Criterion version in the past year, with Regina King’s “One Night in Miami...” and Gordon Parks’ “The Learning Tree” coming soon. If nothing else, this box set of four films — “Sweetback,” “Three Day Pass,” “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” the comedy “The Watermelon Man” — lots of archival footage and even “Baadasssss!” Mario Van Peebles’ fictional 2003 account of the making of “Sweetback,” plays like the necessary context for modern Black film.
Or as Nelson George put it: Van Peebles was “the Big Bang of Black film.”
Indeed, though “The Watermelon Man” was Van Peebles first and only picture for Columbia, rather than play the indebted new hire, you see him laying groundwork for decades of concerns that remain for filmmakers of color, pushing back at business as usual. Silly as it often plays, it’s clearly a pointed critique of “pop culture’s infatuation with whiteness,” as Gates writes. It tells the story of a white suburban dad who wakes up one day to find he’s Black. He takes long showers, expecting to wash the black off. A half-century after its release, it’s broad and as (intentionally) artificial as a sitcom, but deeply angry. His wife tells him that she’s liberal “to a point” — she’s not sure what to think of living with Black people now. The folks on his street offer him far more than the value of his home — anything to avoiding having the value of their own homes decline because of a suddenly Black neighbor. He’s even accused of rape. Whereas he once watched the civil rights marches on TV with a jaundiced eye, he becomes militant. Here was, in a way, the inevitable tweak to the timid protesting in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
Yet among the many fights Van Peebles waged to make his first studio feature was the right to cast a Black man to play the primary Black character. Columbia wanted a white guy in blackface. Van Peebles — anticipating by a decade Eddie Murphy and his classic “White Like Me” skit on “Saturday Night Live” — fought for a Black man in white face. Which is what he did. He cast the stand-up comic Godfrey Cambridge. Columbia, Van Peebles recounts in his introduction, was leaning toward Jack Lemmon or Alan Arkin.
Van Peebles never did complete that three-picture deal.
Instead, he made “Sweetback” in 1971, then followed that same year with a Tony-nominated Broadway musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” (set for a Broadway revival in 2022); a year later, he had another Broadway hit, “Don’t Play Us Cheap.” He decided he would tell stories of Black people as people, and so he did. Which is ironic, because Van Peebles would become better known as inspiration — as a case study in how to have a thoughtful career as a Black director. “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films” is a heady reminder of that smart work, with plenty of room for the man.
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