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An Introduction to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

12 Jun 2013

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Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song screens at 8pm on 12 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

Note: For this screening, viewers under 17 will require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is Melvin Van Peebles third movie, which he wrote, directed, produced, composed music for and starred in. Dedicated to “all the sisters and brothers who had enough of the man,” the film follows a young African American man on his flight from white authority. No studio would agree to fund the film, so Van Peebles financed it independently, shooting over a 19-day period, performing his own stunts and several unsimulated sex scenes. Sweet Sweetback is hailed as the beginning of blaxpoloitation as a genre and Van Peebles refused to submit the film to the all-white MPAA ratings board for approval. His opinion was that they were not a jury of his peers and they’d been approving crippling images of people of color for years, so why let them dictate his cinematic agenda? In the end, the film received an X-rating and Van Peebles made T-shirts that read “Rated X by an all white jury,” and incorporated it into his marketing campaign.

In the book Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto, Van Peebles recounts that the idea for the film materialized during his first soul-searching and auto-erotic trip to the Mojave Desert. Looking out at the at an endless row of electric pylons sandwiched by sky and land, he thought it through:

from p. 67 …

“Anyway story-wise, I came up with an idea, why not the direct approach. Since what I want is the Man’s foot out of our collective asses, why not make the film about a brother getting the Man’s foot out of his ass. That was going to be the thing.

Now to avoid putting myself into a corner and writing something that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, I made a list of the givens in the situation and tried to take those givens and juggle them into the final scenario.

GIVEN:
1. NO COP OUT.

a. I wanted a victorious film. A film where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other’s eyes, looking once again like they’d had it.

2. MUST LOOK AS GOOD AS ANYTHING CHUCK EVER DID.

a. Very delicate point. One of the problems faced by a black filmmaker (in fact any American independent filmmaker who wants to produce his own feature, just more so for a brother) is that Hollywood polishes its product with such a great deal of slickness and expensive perfection that it ups the ante. That is, if I made a film in black and white with poor sound, even if it had all the revolutionary and even story elements that anyone could hope it would have, brother would come out saying, well, shit, niggers can’t do anything right. I saw such and such a film in color and 35 mm and so on and so on, how come we have to make such rinky-dink stuff. Not realizing of course that the price of freedom is often poverty of means. Well I felt that this problem was a little too involved to attack, so I was determined that the film was going to look as good as anything one of the major studios could turn out.)

3. ENTERTAINMENT-WISE, A MOTHER FUCKER.

a. (I had no illusion about the attention level of people brain-washed to triviality.)

b. The film simply couldn’t be didactic discourse which would end up playing (if I could find a distributor) to an empty theater except fro ten or twenty aware brothers who would pat me on the back and say it tells it like it is.

c. If Brer is bored, he’s bored. One of the problems we must face squarely is that to attract the mass we have to produce work that not only instructs but entertains.

d. It must be able to sustain itself as a viable commercial product or there is no commercial product or there is no power base. The Man has an Achilles pocket and he might go along with you if at least there is some bread in it for him. But he ain’t about to go carrying no messages for you, especially a relevant one, for free.

4. A LIVING WORKSHOP.

a. I wanted 50 percent of my shooting crew to be third world people. (This could conflict with point 2 if a script was not developed extremely carefully.) So at best a staggering amount of my crew would be relatively inexperienced. Specifically, this meant that any type of film requiring an enormous technical sophistication at the shooting stage would not be possible.

5. BREAD.

a. SHORT! SHORT! SHORT!

b. Normal financing channels probably closed.

6. MONKEY WRENCHING.

a. I would have to expect a great deal of animosity from the film media (white in the first place and right wing in the second) at all levels of filmmaking. (I would have to double check my flanks at all times and not expose myself to the possibility of racism in everything from keeping tight security about the ‘real’ script to choosing location to dealing with the labs and perhaps a portion of the cast and crew too. As costly as it would be, I felt I would have to leave myself a security margin.)

7. UNKNOWNS AND VARIABLES.

a. CALIBER OF ACTORS.

b. CALIBER OF CREW.

c. I would have to write a flexible script where emphasis could be shifted. In short, stay loose.

I suppose I could have made an infinite list of liabilities and assets, especially liabilities… but anyway.”

Excerpted from Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto.

– Erin Kimmel, Associate Curator

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song screens at 8pm on 12 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

Note: For this screening, viewers under 17 will require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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