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.


petercox97 said...

when discussing this movie, no reviewer ever explains how van peebles got away with using a child in an explicit sex scene, his son no less, when there was such a hue and a cry four years later when ten year old brooke shields was depicted in a non-sexual scene emerging from the bath in pretty baby.

on the one hand, perhaps van peebles thought if anyone was going to use his thirteen year old son in a nude scene, and it should be added that the kid looks way younger than thirteen, then it should be he who does it. perhaps charges of child pornography are not as credible if the scenes involve children of color since young black men are rarely looked upon as innocent and vulnerable.

then again, the junior van peebles has raved in more than one interview that the scene was the best moment of his life. somehow that admission rings hollow. even grown men are scared to drop trou in front of the crew an everybody during a sex scene. which explains why for every ten thousand A or B movies which feature countless barely legal nude women, there are only a couple of films featuring shadowy, poorly lit scenes of a couple of male behinds.

Abraham said...

Perhaps because the topic really has nothing to do with the movie on the whole?
But to look at your points as valid ("People are talking about it…"): In regard to the first point you make, we would argue that you're absolutely right about "perhaps charges of child pornography are not as credible if the scenes involve children of color since young black men are rarely looked upon as innocent and vulnerable." (Hell, much of the US doesn't care what happens to Black people in general, since what happens is obviously their own fault. [Not.]) But you completely overlook other relevant aspects of the two productions.
For one, Sweet Sweetback was an independent movie with no name stars and for a minority audience, and of no major importance to the mainstream press or white America. Pretty Baby, on the other hand, was a Hollywood film by a name director with name stars that could and did court mainstream controversy and press — hell, they even went for a layout in Playboy. Shields' nudity was a selling point, unlike Peebles'. So of course Pretty Baby made and got the attention & controversy.
Alone the use of nude children also is time-dictated: the unquestionable social mores of the US today dictate no kiddies nude, but back then the argument "a crime without a victim" was, illogically, still considered something "people are talking about". (Once upon a time, The Birth of a Nation was also not considered a racist movie. Times, and what's considered acceptable, change…. And, going by our current government, also change back.) That said, "child pornography" requires a bit more than simulated sex in which only a youth's backside and the saggy boobs of a skanky extra are seen. In that sense, Pretty Baby, with its underage full frontals, is closer to "porn" than Sweetback — especially, since, again: Shields' nudity was a selling point, unlike Peebles'.
We're not sure why jr.'s "admission" (were "statement" not the more appropriate word?) "rings hollow", but then we haven't read the interview(s) you speak of. In any event, he doesn't seem to have been damaged by the event. And who knows what the Peebles family background was like? We ourselves had a nudist-camp owner in ours, and thus nudity already fazed us far less than most people we knew in the US long before three decades of living in Europe inured us even more.
"Even grown men are scared to drop trou[sers] in front of the crew and everybody during a sex scene." But men are known to show wiener anyways, if rarely — Ghost Story (frontal) and Short Cuts come promptly to mind, sticking to US major studio productions (both old, we note). But we also shouldn't forget: the American mainstream society is a deeply penis-phobic one in which the sight of a penis turns innocents into perverts and sex monsters. A visible penis also moves the movie into an R-rating quicker than a flash of boob. Most producers, male and straight, also prefer the flash of boob to limp sausage. (We doubt, for example, that Weinstein ever said "You got to put a naked man into your movie.") And what movie star wants it revealed to the world that they don't measure up? (Not many can swing in the wind as impressively as Liam Neeson.)
But we digress. In the end: nudity alone does not make pornography, intention does. Pretty Baby got the hue and cry because they wanted it. "Intention" is far more present in that movie than Sweet Sweetback, which is definitely not pornographic — and that despite the big, stiff adult wiener one sees for all of a split second when Peebles Senior is earning rent money doing a sex show.