Following an unfortunate run-in with the LAPD, resulting in the injury of two police officers, our eponymous hero (Van Peebles), a sexworker-turned-revolutionary, flees Los Angeles and makes his way to Mexico. Along Sweetback’s journey, we encounter a cross section of the city’s citizens, from storefront preachers to prostitutes and hippies. Lauded as the inspiration for blaxploitation films from the early seventies, Sweetback is responsible for introducing many conventions of the genre, including an empowered African American anti-hero, villainous white characters, urban settings, contemporary soundtracks, and a proactive stance on institutionalised racism. While the film’s many imitators would follow fairly conventional narrative structure, Sweetback’s experiences often take the form of a fever dream, as our hero makes his way across the city accompanied by self-conscious editing, handheld camera work, and a funky soundtrack by then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire. In the end, and despite these avant-garde flourishes, Sweetback is a classic American story of a lone hero fighting against unfair power structures, all played against a backdrop of renewed African American political protest and urban unrest.
A Baad Asssss Nigger is Coming Back to Collect Some Dues’ With these provocative words, Melvin Van Peebles ended his third feature film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This somewhat tongue-in-cheek coda, equal parts political and aesthetic threat, became the defining moment for African American cinema during the 1970s. Most often considered the model for ‘blaxploitiation’, or Hollywood’s attempt to capitalise on the popularity of narrative focusing on African American gangsters, pimps, and drug dealers, Sweetback was a trendsetter as well as a product of larger national and international filmmaking trends itself; its style and subject matter as much indebted to the French New Wave as it was to the Black Arts Movement. The film also was the product of Van Peebles’ experiences and vision, and in order to gauge its place in cinema history it’s important to understand how creator, aesthetics, and politics combined for box office success.
Melvin Van Peebles began making films in France during the 1960s. After a stint in the Air Force and assorted jobs in San Francisco, Van Peebles moved to Amsterdam in 1959, where he enrolled in the University of Amsterdam. It was at this point that Melvin Peebles became Melvin ‘Van’ Peebles. During the 1960s, Van Peebles moved to France, where he supported himself by writing novels and performing (singing, dancing, acting). His debut in filmmaking came when he adapted one of his novels, La Permission, for the screen with the help of a grant from the French government. The resulting film, Story of a Three-Day Pass, tells of an African American soldier stationed in France who meets a white Frenchwoman during a three-day furlough. The affair is soon discovered by white members of the soldier’s unit, and his future in the military is jeopardised as a result. While the film’s story verged on the conventionally melodramatic, its style evidenced influences from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. Shot on location with a handheld camera, Story of a Three-Day Pass featured jump cuts, direct address, and fantasy sequences disrupting the linear flow of the narrative. In story and structure it was a product of its time and place as well as a precursor of what would come.
Van Peebles returned to the United States in 1967 when Story of a Three-Day Pass was screened as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. Based on the success of this film, the director was contracted to work with Columbia Pictures (legend has it that Columbia executives were initially unaware that he was African American), where he directed and scored Watermelon Man (1970), a satire about a white advertising executive who wakes up one day to discover that he has become a black man. While the film’s subject matter was timely – American viewers were familiar with Civil Rights struggles and Black Power rhetoric – the film earned only a modest return in its first year, making approximately $1.5 million dollars on a budget of $1 million. One possible reason for the film’s disappointing box office might be due to Watermelon Man’s experimentation with style, including jump cuts and the use of colour filters for symbolic impact, which was still relatively innovative for American mainstream cinema. Perhaps more important, however, was that Watermelon Man required that viewers take the point of view of an African American man – albeit a successful middle-class businessman – a narrative shift that was almost unheard of at this point in American film despite Sidney Poitier’s efforts to change the face of American film heroes.
Next came Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Van Peebles’ third film was a hybrid; the product of the director’s experiences with and exposure to innovative and self-conscious European Art Cinema and the more conventional Hollywood mainstream. Most directly influenced by the director’s experimentation with form and narrative structure, the film also was enabled by his involvement with Columbia Pictures: Van Peebles used his salary from Watermelon Man to fund his next project. The film is at one and the same time an experimental independent feature with massive box office appeal.
Sweetback is legendary for its innovative approach to production and marketing – it was produced, directed, edited, and scored by Van Peebles, who also performed in the lead role. The film was made on a budget of approximately $500,000, from a combination of sources, including Van Peebles’ personal funds and last-minute investments from African American celebrities like Bill Cosby. Production costs were kept to a minimum by using nonprofessional actors (most notoriously the director’s son, Mario, as the young Sweetback who is initiated sexually by an adult prostitute) and a nonunion crew masquerading as a porn production. Once released, the film received an ‘X’ rating, which Van Peebles used to buoy the box office through clever marketing (claiming on posters, for example, that the rating was given by an ‘all white jury’). Rental income was supplemented by the sale of a companion soundtrack album and ‘making-of’ book. Made on a tiny budget, Sweetback became one of the highest grossing films of the year, with most sources estimating a box office of $5–15 million.1
The film’s plot is fairly simple. Unofficially adopted by prostitutes as a child, Sweetback (Van Peebles) grows up performing odd jobs and sex acts in a Watts brothel. When the LAPD is in need of somebody for a police line up, Sweetback is ‘volunteered’ by his boss after he’s coerced into doing so by police detectives. On the way to the precinct, the police pick up Mu-Mu, a young black revolutionary, whom they beat (initially while he’s still attached to Sweetback with handcuffs). During Mu-Mu’s thrashing, Sweetback turns on the cops, beating both unconscious. This moment is presented as Sweetback’s political awakening. It is also the beginning of Sweetback’s flight from the police – action that consumes the remainder of the narrative, puts Sweetback in touch with other residents of the black community, and maps out certain areas of urban and rural Southern California. During his flight, Sweetback sleeps with a number of women, beats two more cops, and leaves the city, famously promising to come back to collect some dues.
While the plot is relatively straightforward, the film’s form is more experimental, the product of budgetary constraints and Van Peebles’ continuing interest in cinematic reflexivity. The film’s narrative structure provides the first indication that Sweetback was breaking new ground (at least in the United States). The narrative is elliptical, following Sweetback’s flight through the city and its surroundings. While Sweetback spends the majority of the film running from the law, he doesn’t seem to get anywhere, and the film’s repetition of shots of Sweetback in flight supports this interpretation. Moreover, the film’s famous coda leaves the narrative unresolved, a rarity at this point in Hollywood filmmaking, which tended to provide audiences with films with straightforward and satisfying endings. Like his earlier films, Van Peebles used a combination of direct address, jump cuts, montage sequences, superimpositions, and colour filters as a self-conscious means of creating a reaction in spectators. The soundtrack, an often asynchronous combination of music by Van Peebles and the then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, acted as an aural counterpoint to the film’s visuals, and often functioned in a similar manner as montage sequences, providing audiences with an Eisenstein-like collision of sound and image.
The film was shot on location in and around the Watts section of Los Angeles and this, in combination with the use of handheld camera and nonprofessional actors, supported Sweetback’s claim (in its opening shots) that it starred the community. More important, community support for Sweetback in the film sent a message of solidarity to its audiences. Sweetback, in the tradition of a Staggerlee, was the people’s hero: he fought back in the face of skewed justice, and the community came to his aide with food, shelter, and transport out of the city. Sweetback’s experimental moments actually served to forward this message. Late in the film, for example, there appears a montage sequence of different people answering whether they know Sweetback’s whereabouts. In each instance, the answer is no, but the overall effect suggests unity.
Not surprisingly, Sweetback sparked heated debate upon its release. For viewers still reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, and the violent urban insurrections that followed in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey, the film directly embodied (and in some scenes, visually echoed) the frustration, pain, and fear of American race politics. But unlike more mainstream – or politically neutered – Hollywood products about race inequities (such as the ‘message movies’ of the previous decade), Sweetback offered a more assertive alternative in its characterisation of its eponymous hero: Sweetback fought back, the first time an African American character did so in a film with nationwide release.
The debate over Sweetback normally fell between two poles. Identified as ‘revolutionary’ filmmaking by Van Peebles, an attempt to ‘de-colonise’ his audience’s minds, the director argued that Sweetback’s mythic qualities, sexual virility, and political agency empowered African American audiences.2 This view was supported by Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.3 An equally common viewpoint, often voiced by the black middle class (in the pages of Ebony, for example), criticised that very same violence, sexism, and the film’s insinuation that a revolution could succeed through sexual dexterity and violent action.4 Here, the film’s echoing of the images of recent urban insurrections (burning cruisers, for example) was seen as counter to Civil Rights advocacy.
While these debates continued over the next few years, their focus shifted to what would be Sweetback’s more immediate legacy: its influence on Hollywood’s investment in blaxploitation film. During the late 1960s the film industry was financially struggling, the result of a number of factors, including lagging attendance as people moved to the suburbs, the increasing popularity of television, and a rising youth audience hungry for more unconventional (less staid) film fare. After a number of costly flops, such as Robert Wise’s Star! (1968), industry executives were looking for projects that offered high returns for little risk.5 Additionally, the industry was coming under fire from African American groups, primarily the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, for its dismal hiring record for African American personnel. Sweetback offered the perfect model for Hollywood; a low-risk, high-gain, and easily repeated formula. Moreover, the film’s box office suggested the profitability of previously underexplored target audiences, particularly African American urban youth audiences.6 Starting with Shaft (Gordon Parks, Sr., 1971), an action film featuring Richard Roundtree as Private Detective John Shaft, the industry began releasing films featuring African American (mostly) male outsiders – pimps, drug dealers, and a few private detectives – ‘sticking it to the man’. The blaxploitation cycle lasted roughly until 1975, when Hollywood, sparked by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, moved onto other models of profitable filmmaking. For a few years, however, Sweetback existed in blaxploitation.
Sweetback’s immediate legacy may have been one of controversy and co-optation, but its reputation as one of the most important American films of the 1970s still stands. The film is a clear example of American, and African American, film narrative and style in transition. Breaking away from political and aesthetic conventions, the film provided a blueprint for socially and politically committed filmmaking that was also profitable. By drawing upon international filmmaking movements, not the least of which was the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, Van Peebles provided a workable approach to low-budget filmmaking; a model that was used by Hollywood in the 1970s, but which was resurrected to much longer-lasting effect in the 1980s when a younger generation of African American filmmakers, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, for example, used Van Peebles’ approach to ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking as inspiration for their own independent features. Furthermore, Sweetback’s unconventional narrative structure, cinematography, and editing proved that American audiences were ready for more demanding, more self-conscious filmmaking. In all these ways, Sweetback continues to collect his dues.
Paula J. Massood
1. Actual box office figures vary. Variety lists the first year’s gross at approximately $5 million, while www.imdb.com suggests a figure closer to $15 million. Van Peebles, in various interviews, has estimated that the film earned $10 million. See also ‘Big Rental Films of 1971’, Variety, 5 Jan. 1972, p. 9.
2. Quoted in James P. Murray, ‘Running With Sweetback’, Black Creation, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1971, p. 10.
3. See Newton’s commentary on the film in The Black Panther 6, 19 June 1971.
4. Lerone Bennett and Don L. Lee, ‘The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland’, Ebony, September 1971, p. 108. For a detailed overview of the critical responses to the film see Jon Hartmann’s ‘The Trope of Blaxploitation in Critical Responses to Sweetback’, Film History, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1994, pp. 382–404.
5. Star! was made for $14 million. The film earned a mere $4 million during its first year of release, suggesting that audiences were no longer interested in big-budget musicals.
6. American independent cinema began exploiting target markets in the 1950s, especially teens with expendable income (a result of post-war affluence). While studios were aware of the African American segment of the box office since the 1920s, it did not actively seek to capitalise black audiences until the 1970s. For more on early exploitation practices, see Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenization of American Movies in the 1950s, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, rev. 2002, and Eric Shaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959, Durham, Duke University Press, 1999.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Yeah. Director: Melvin Van Peebles. Producers: Jerry Gross and Melvin Van Peebles. Screenwriter: Melvin Van Peebles. Cinematographer: Robert Maxwell. Music: Earth, Wind & Fire and Melvin Van Peebles. Cast: Simon Chuckster (Beetle), Melvin Van Peebles (Sweetback), Hubert Scales (Mu-Mu), Mario Van Peebles (Young Sweetback), John Amos (Biker).]
Manthia Diawara (ed.), Black American Cinema, New York, Routledge, 1993.
Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993.
Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2003.
Mark Anthony Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, New York, Routledge, 2002.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.