[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]
In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]
This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.
In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).
Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.
‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.
But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:
Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]
Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).
According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic
historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)
Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)
But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.
In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.
Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.
In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.
As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.
At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,
Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.
The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.