My Mack Daddy, Myself

For the Van Peebles crew, 'BAADASSSSS!' brings it all back home

The Breathless of blaxploitation, beloved by the Panthers, Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is dedicated to "all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man." The Big Fish of biopics, bought by Sony Classics, Mario Van Peebles's BAADASSSSS! is dedicated, in spirit if not in postscript, to his father Melvin, whom Mario himself plays as a stop-at-nothing workaholic, a man determined to put his Song even before his son. Made in 1970, Melvin's movie opens with the young Mario playing the young Sweetback, who takes his name from the hooker singing his praises beneath him. ("A little boy gets down and a man gets up," observes Melvin on the commentary track of the old Criterion laserdisc.) With bittersweet symmetry, Mario's film ends with the young Mario (Khleo Thomas) on the set of Sweetback, gazing at Pops in wounded admiration. What an astonishing image this is: a son's picture of himself as a child forgiving his father for alienating him in the service of a movie that liberated its audience.

BAADASSSSS!, like its cinematic forebear, is an American original. But it isn't the only recent movie to measure its maker's personal losses against the lasting achievements of his dad--the one who brought home the bacon and the pain. My Architect and Big Fish are factual and fictional accounts of the same familiar story: I never knew my father, but the world is better for his work (some beautiful buildings in the former example, a pile of metaphoric manure in the latter). BAADASSSSS! lies somewhere between its brilliant precursors--between fact and fiction--as an embellished docudrama about the making of a flamboyant fantasy of black-on-white revenge. But however thickly layered the movie appears, its emotions are real and right on the surface. Matter of fact, if it's true what they say, that the artist takes what's missing in his or her life and replaces it with the semblance of completion, then BAADASSSSS! is an unusually genuine gift even by Song's standards: not just a movie made instead of a relationship, but a movie devoted to preserving one. The younger Van Peebles gives Pops his props and then some.

How bittersweet it is: Mario Van Peebles in 'BAADASSSSS!'
Sony Pictures Classics
How bittersweet it is: Mario Van Peebles in 'BAADASSSSS!'

But is it political? You bet your asssss. Not many film history curriculums have included the auteur elsewhere revered as the godfather of modern black cinema, a radical thinker whose 1998 documentary Classified X provided his indelible view of the Hollywood agenda: "to protect the status quo, perpetuate the myth of white supremacy, and thereby undermine the Negro struggle for equality in the United States." No wonder he's not in the canon, though BAADASSSSS! bids to put him there. It opens by intercutting shots of cigar-chomping, bandana-sporting Melvin tooling through the desert on his supercool chopper (10-year-old Mario on the back) with mock-doc mentions of what was really fueling the man's drive in 1970: assassinations, war in Vietnam, police brutality, Hollywood racism, and the legitimate fear that if white executives wouldn't likely bankroll Baadasssss Song before his satiric Watermelon Man opened in theaters, they sure as hell wouldn't bankroll it afterward.

By the way: What I just described lasts no more than three minutes onscreen. This BAADASSSSS! is a swift kick, let me tell you--and it lands at the start of the fourth minute with Melvin's roadside remark to his windblown kid: "Shut up and listen for a while." The movie's intermittent didacticism can be forgiven on account of the fact that Mario, unlike a lot of American filmgoers, has had to hear it all--including the old man's practical advice, which the junior artist delivers in character and takes as his own just as the title "Produced and Directed by Mario Van Peebles" appears onscreen: "Entertainment-wise, [my movie] had to be a muthafucka. If folks get bored, it's over."

And now you'll excuse me: I'm going to go play with my son.

 
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