Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (USA, 1971)

"Dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the man" and starring "The Black Community," this is the first if not the undisputed masterpiece of modern Black Exploitation film. A full-blown frontal attack on the viewer's senses, this film isn't just angry, it spews forth an unbridled rage. Written, directed, starring, and produced (with Jerry Gross) by Melvin Van Peebles (who also composed the iconic film music with Earth, Wind and Fire), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was filmed in 19 days amongst the fully decaying glory of Los Angeles urban slime and grime using unknown non-actors at the non-budget of $500,000.00. Rated X upon its first release ("by an all white jury" of the MPA, as the ads used to say), this example of roaringly political, anti-white man, pro-brother prime grindhouse slime is a far cry from Peebles' previous two films, The Story of A Three Day Pass (France, 1967) and The Watermelon Man (USA,1970). One knows that what is to come is going to be coarse, filthy and mean when the opening credits are superimposed over a saliently filmed scene of the naked hero—around the tender age of 13—getting his cherry popped by an unwashed hooker (a scene featuring the screen debut of Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, future maker of New Jack City (1991) and star of a shitload of contemporary b-level, straight-to-video and dvd trash).
Using a visually savage editing technique that will probably make today's viewer think of recent Oliver Stone films or MTV with balls and on LSD, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is an entertainingly sleazy, funny and wild rollercoaster ride through 1970s ghetto hell which narrates the awakening and eventual escape of every racist white redneck's nightmare: the cool, self-assured, big-dicked, sexually superior hunk of feral black manhood, personified by Melvin van Peebles himself. Endowed with one scary, massively deadly tool of insemination, Sweet Sweetback earns his keep by doing an amusingly weird live sex show at an illegal club somewhere deep in the darkest belly of Los Angeles. Hauled in by two corrupt and racist cops as the patsy for a crime he didn't commit, Sweetback remains a good, silent, privileged white man's nigger up until he is forced to witness the bastions of black repression beating the shit out of a young black revolutionary. Suddenly 200 years worth of pent-up black fury cuts savagely free and Sweetback batters the two cops unconscious. For the rest of the film the viewer is treated to an action packed, tastelessly hilarious, body-littered and deeply bitter chronicle of Sweetback running for his life with racist cops hot on his trail through Los Angeles (in circles, actually, as anyone from L.A. will be able to tell you). Along the way through this modern-day "Underground Railroad," more cops get killed, a cop car explodes, a variety of innocent brothers get tortured or wasted, a man shits live on screen, an early form of rapping is presented, Sweetback wets his willy in two more sisters and fucks an Amazonian motorcycle gang's leader senseless before, in another scene directly referential to the days of American slavery, Sweetback, with hunting dogs baying at his heels, escapes the repressive power of "The Man" by crossing the border to Mexico and freedom.
On one level, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song can be taken as a mighty fine piece of nasty celluloid, an example of low-budget trash and Blaxploitation at its best, boundary bending and artistically sincere even as it goes for the basest sentiments. On another level, as filthy, aggressive and uncompromisingly in your face as the film is, it still seems wrong to simply dismiss this film as a piece of exploitation, especially considering how unfailingly experimental it is in terms of visual and narrative structure. Van Peebles is obviously a talented filmmaker, and this film has a strong, blunt message that takes it beyond the simple level of a simple "genre film." Pretty it isn't, but can it be so easily dismissed as simply "(Black) Exploitation"? Actually, while Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song's originality may quickly have been co-opted by all the black audience oriented films to come in its wake, the film is much more simply the first modern (Political) Black Film, if not the first true classic of modern Black Cinema. Regrettably, films like this just aren't made anymore.

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