Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A transgressive, funky, radical blaxploitation movie.
What did I get? Impressionistic, raw, angry, and sly, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song makes no concessions to the uninitiated, and that intransigence constitutes much of its appeal. As the uninitiated, I was surprised at how choppy and dissonant the movie is; it’s only scarcely formed into a coherent shape. It’s hard for me to embrace a movie with so little regard for verisimilitude, but its underlying funk and integrity left even me groping for compliments. This must be the most bracing and confusing movie ever to reach #1.
The adjective that best unites Sweetback‘s positive and negative aspects is fucked up. The first half hour or so is pretty rough going — the use of nonprofessional actors, the inadequately lit and mic’d action, and the unhelpful (experimental) editing often make it difficult to figure out what is going on; the movie becomes more enjoyable once the basic narrative is established. Raised in a brothel, Sweet Sweetback, played almost wordlessly by Van Peebles himself, assaults a pair of white police officers who are in the process of brutalizing a suspected Black Panther and then spends the rest of the movie fleeing to the Mexican border, often using sex to win assistance from various parties.
Wikipedia describes it as a “picaresque,” which would never have occurred to me but is certainly accurate enough. The various scenes are connected by an excellent jam from Earth, Wind & Fire over footage of Sweetback running through various southern California locales. It’s hard to tell, but the experimental rawness of the movie was surely a product of expedience — Van Peebles had recently directed a movie, Watermelon Man, for Columbia Pictures, with whom he was in negotiations for a three-picture deal. Van Peebles ended up raising his own money for Sweetback (including a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, of all people). His stance of political defiance seems the residue of this hard-won independence, and the rough, nonnarrative (incomprehensible) aspects of the movie are unquestionably an attempt to make a virtue of frugality.
The contradiction here is that the experimental techniques and the radical political agenda don’t really blend very well, although it’s precisely that unstable mix that may have catapulted Sweetback to unprecedented popularity for a low-budget independent movie. Political sloganeering requires bluntness and clarity, and Sweetback is too confusing to be a traditionally effective political document. And yet the loose, non-doctrinaire experimentalism and the obviously authentic representation of black experience turned what might otherwise have been a forbidding piece of work into a frank and fluid tone poem about racial oppression.
As mentioned, I got rather little aesthetic pleasure from the movie, and yet I still find myself liking it. The things I like about the movie make a short list, but they are fortunately present throughout: Sweetback himself, the Earth, Wind, & Fire music, and a goodly amount of the transitional footage. Also, for such a seemingly “unformed” movie, Sweetback is capable of surprising resonance. For example, Sweetback’s flight to Mexico unmistakably recalls the Underground Railroad. The tale of an oppressed black cocksman seeking to escape the clutches of “the Man” has undeniable power.
Reading the contemporaneous reception to the movie in The New Yorker and other places, it’s clear to me that, alongside the genuine embrace by black audiences, white critics seeking some kind of vicarious credibility were grading the movie on a curve. Make no mistake: the movie is very rough, and the thrilling novelty of its X rating was probably inseparable from its journey to #1.
The movie’s natural epigraph came from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle five years later: “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads, here’s a man who would not take it anymore.” Here’s to MVP (ha), a beautiful, maddening motherfucker.
What here smacks of 1971? Both the experimentation and the radical politics are highly redolent of 1971. At the time, it seemed like a starting point, which turned out not to be true.
IMDB score: 5.6
My score: 7
Director: Melvin Van Peebles
Writer: Melvin Van Peebles
Starring: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan, West Gale, Niva Rochelle, Rhetta Hughes, Nick Ferrari, Ed Rue, John Amos, Lavelle Roby, Ted Hayden, Mario Van Peebles, Sonja Dunson, Michael Augustus
IMDB synopsis: Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed and starred in this powerful and inflammatory attack on White America. After the body of a black man is discovered, Sweetback helps two white ‘acquaintances’ in the police force to look good by agreeing to go with them to the station as a suspect. But he is forced to go on the run after brutally attacking the two policemen when they arrest and beat up a young black man.