Baadasssss is about feeling pain and frustration, about having a sense of purpose that overwhelms everything else, about great cost and great risk, the pain of isolation and the intoxicating effect of fighting against the odds.
That may sound like a lot of subtext for a movie that's just the story of how an earlier film got made. But Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song wasn't just any movie. Its writer-director-star, Melvin Van Peebles, wasn't just another filmmaker. And the story Melvin's son Mario tells in Baadasssss is more than just the tale of a guy obeying his muse - it's an inspiring snapshot of the forces a truly independent filmmaker must overcome in bringing his vision to the screen and a reminder that social change comes at a great price, especially to those dedicated to pushing it forward.
Black cinema barely existed when Sweetback's was released in 1971; it would be an overstatement to say the elder Van Peebles willed it into existence, but not by much. Armed with a big-studio contract after the success of his 1970 comedy Watermelon Man (starring Godfrey Cambridge as a bigoted insurance salesman who wakes up black one morning), Van Peebles opted instead to follow his instincts and tell a story that reflected the world many African-Americans were living in at the time.
The story he came up with, of a brothel worker on the run after pummeling a couple of racist white cops, is awash in black music and street culture, told in a language no Hollywood studio at the time would touch. But money talks, and the film made plenty of it, enough to initiate a wave of blaxploitation flicks that enabled the studios to tap into an audience they never even knew was out there.
His son, Mario, 13 at the time the film was shot, had a small but pivotal role in Sweetback's, playing the title character as a youngster having his first sexual experience (in a scene that's still shocking for its frankness). Now grown and a renowned filmmaker in his own right (his directorial efforts include 1991's New Jack City), Mario's new film pays tribute to his father as both a revolutionary figure and a pivotal independent filmmaker.
Baadasssss takes place at a time when the idea that African-Americans even had a culture worth representing onscreen, much less one people would pay to see, seemed the height of daring. Melvin (played by Mario, obeying his father's lone instruction: "Don't make me too damn nice") is a man with a vision, and woe to anyone who doesn't share it. Determined to get his movie made, he invests every cent he has, alienates those around him who don't share his commitment (and that includes his family) and strong-arms people who might be able to help him.
He becomes obsessed with getting his film made, shooting on the run, lying when necessary (he convinces union reps that he's shooting a porno film, so they want nothing to do with the project), staying one step ahead of creditors. He even puts his health on the line; at one point, forced to edit the film himself and at the point of exhaustion after too many sleepless nights, he loses vision in one eye.
Mario paints a remarkable portrait of his father as a man concerned with bigger things, a man out to prove something even he's not sure about anymore. For Melvin, making Sweetback's was a test of himself as a filmmaker and an African-American caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the times; when the MPAA slaps his movie with an adults-only rating, he advertises the film with the tagline "Rated X by an all-white jury." Nothing else but his film matters. That hardly makes him a saint, but it makes him extraordinarily compelling. In fact, the title of Mario's film refers as much to his dad as to the film his dad made.
There's a free-spirited core at the center of Mario's film, as the Sweetback's gang, a veritable Rainbow Coalition of cinematic talent brought together by their faith in Melvin's vision and their willingness to work cheap, improvise endlessly in their efforts to get this thing made. Melvin's secretary, Priscilla (Antwone Fisher's Joy Bryant), keeps haranguing her boss for a part in the film - she's got talent, she insists, if only someone would give her the chance to show it (a dilemma to which Melvin can relate). His Hispanic assistant director, Jose Garcia (Paul Rodriguez), gets pulled over by cops who assume that anyone with his skin color driving a car full of camera equipment must be a thief. His white cinematographer, Bob Maxwell (Robert Peters), is constantly being asked to shoot things in little or no light, with barely any time for preparation.
They're a ragtag bunch, these men and women who combined forces to produce Sweetback's, led by a man who's equal parts artist and con artist, manager and manipulator, fanatic and lunatic. Baadasssss captures the exasperation and exhilaration inherent in following such a man. Societal and cultural change happens in fits and starts, often emanating from the unlikeliest of sources - like a maverick filmmaker determined to do things his way.
Starring Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant
Directed by Mario Van Peebles
Rated R (pervasive language and some strong sexuality/nudity)
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Time 108 minutes