Notes on “Sweet Sweetback”

by Maria Rhodes, Rooftop’s Programming & Festival Coordinator
RSVP for Thursday’s special free Fort Greene Park screening now!

I first encountered Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song when I was in college, a silly film nerd particularly interested in the history of movements. Blaxpliotation was one that really captivated my attention: Foxy BrownShaftSuper Fly, the list goes on. They showed African American protagonists as witty, capable human beings that hated the establishments that attempted to bury them, and instead of taking racism lying down, they kicked its butt. They spoke directly to my anarchist, rebellious heart.

While these films and many other blaxpliotation pictures were a rollicking good time in line with other action films that were being made at the time, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a whole different beast. For me, it took two to three times seeing the film before I truly understood what was going on. While the premise is simple—a male prostitute gets in trouble with the law and must flee cops with the help of many underground figures including drug dealers, mobsters, fellow prostitutes, et al—the way it’s shot and the many political angles within its frames are not.
Melvin Van Peebles, who financed the film, shot it, starred in it, and directed it himself, creates this hazy, hallucinatory atmosphere where the characters move in and out of frame as if on different planes of space/time entirely. At other times, characters that the audience just met will talk about their experience in this urban hell they live in with no real introduction. They feel like they’re addressing you personally instead of Sweetback, while he says maybe ten words throughout the entire film. The funky musical backdrop—which seems to pervade every scene—was composed by members of Earth, Wind and Fire to further mystify the viewer. Because of these choices, the film feels both *of* a time and very much out of it; the film seems to supernaturally jump out at you here, and then exist within your own reality there.

Van Peebles wanted it to be a living, breathing document of the age-old struggle of the African American community, therefore, he personally took it on tour to the only theatres that would accept it (which were generally porn theatres). He did his own advertising, which caught the eye of local chapters of the Black Panthers, who helped spread the word and get more people out. It subsequently ran in a couple of theatres for months longer than a normal film would. These screenings wouldn’t just be about the film itself, but would serve as a catalyst for members of the audience to speak about their own experience, to shout at the screen when those racist cops come on the screen, and to, ultimately, organize. While Van Peebles went on to do other projects, he would always be associated with Sweet Sweetback, an endlessly important film and many people’s first exposure to an exceedingly powerful, iconic genre.
Van Peebles seemed to inherently understand the film as a living document, reviving and touring with it when he could. In 2003, Melvin’s son, Mario Van Peebles, made Baadasssss!, a film about the making of Sweet Sweetback. He chose to this time *play* his father, just as he played the young version of Sweetback in the original. Not only was it about Melvin’s experience, but also Mario’s: of being on set, of having/being a father who had to divide his time between project and family. It took the film as source material, twisting it into something that became about both father and son.

Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber continues this tradition of experimentation and revising by creating a whole new score for our screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. They’ll be creating and improvising it before our eyes as they interact with the crazy visuals that came out of Melvin Van Peeble’s head.

Again: join us this Thursday, May 30th, at Fort Greene Park for our free screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Redux, Remix & Requiem by clicking here!