NEW WORLD PICTURES MONTH: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is incendiary, 51 years after it was made, so I have no idea what it was like when it played theaters in 1971. Melvin Van Peebles started making it as part of his three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures, but at the end of the day, no studio would finance this.

Van Peebles did it all himself, directing, raising the money, writing, scoring, starring, doing his own stunts and even had unsimulated sex that led to this movie being “rated X by an all-white jury” and if that’s not a tagline, tell me a better one.

Not only did he do the stunts, he jumped off a bridge nine times to get the perfect shot. And he got gonorrhea shooting all the sex scenes, then got workers’ comp from the Directors Guild for getting hurt while working, using the money to finish this movie.

He came up with the idea by driving his car into the Mojave desert and driving off the highay and then sitting and staring at the sun, which gave him a revelation. He was going to make a movie “about a brother getting the Man’s foot out of his ass.”

Sweetback grew up in a brothel, learned how to have sex when he was just a kid (that’s Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son, between a sex workers thighs in the opening) and has taken his lovemaking skills and big cock to the professional arena, performing every night in the live sex show in the house where he grew up.

His boss Beetle agrees to a deal from two cops. Sweetback looks like a killer they’re looking for and to keep the white public happy, they’re going to arrest him and then release him a day or so later. But then they handcuff him to Mu-Mu, a Black Panther, and when the cops beat the man into oblivion in the middle of nowhere, Sweetback turns his handcuffs into weapons, imposing his will on the Man.

On the run, no one will help our hero. A woman just wants sex for taking off his chains. His boss doesn’t want any trouble. A preacher just wants to keep things as they’ve always been. His episodic journey to freedom leads to drinking water in the desert, using his sex as his greatest weapon and hiding amongst others as dogs are turned on him and black men are attacked by the fuzz at every turn.

It’s mind numbing with quick cuts that seem of today and not older than I am. It was required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. It was a movie that some black writers thought was as false as blacksploitation. But Spike Lee would one day say, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film a real movie, distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid. Without Sweetback who knows if there could have been a She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle or House Party?”

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