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Happy Birthday, Melvin Van Peebles, Writer, Director and Actor

August 21, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Melvin Van Peebles has been called a renaissance man, displaying his multi-genre talents writing screenplays, novels, plays and music, in addition to acting in and directing feature films.

Melvin Van Peebles’ Early Days

Melvin Van Peebles was born in Chicago on August 21, 1932. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University before taking off to travel in Europe, Mexico and the United States. He used his freedom to full advantage, working as a painter, postal worker and street performer after serving in the Air Force. Van Peebles also spent time living in Paris, where he wrote several novels, one of which, “La Permission,” later became his first film, “The Story of the Three Day Pass.”

Van Peebles’ Film Career

Van Peebles made his Hollywood directorial debut with the 1970 comedy “Watermelon Man,” a film that explored racism through a story of a white, middle-class bigot who turns into a black man overnight. He used his salary from the film to fund a passion project, the film “Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song.”

Van Peebles wrote, starred in, directed, produced, edited and scored the film, which cost him just $50,000 to make. “Melvin was a force of nature, a cigar-chewing renaissance man who got his own way,” writes film critic Roger Ebert. “Only sheer willpower forced the production ahead, despite cash and personnel emergencies, and ‘Sweet Sweetback’ is like a textbook on guerrilla filmmaking.”

The film became a hit, earning close to $20 million. “Crude and offensive by ‘establishment’ standards, this tale of a black fugitive’s one-man vendetta against Whitey proved to be an enormous hit with African American audiences,” says All Movie Guide.

Time magazine named “Sweet Sweetback” the most influential movie by a black filmmaker, recognizing the film for its originality and for creating a shift in the direction of black films “from liberal to anarchist, from uplifting message movies to fables of ghetto smarts and stickin’ it to the man.”

The film is credited with launching the blaxploitation genre, which spawned films like “Dolemite” and “Shaft.” The genre “reflected the decade’s torrent of social and racial upheaval” and was influenced by “America's decaying inner cities, long ravaged by violence and poverty,” explains Hollywood.com.

In a February 2007 interview with Philadelphia Weekly, Van Peebles discussed the release of a documentary about his life called “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).” Despite the heightened attention on his work and talents, Van Peebles said he did not feel that Hollywood was more receptive to his ideas.

“Well, I’m always doing something new, but under exactly the same conditions as before. Nobody will come in to help,” he said.

The Rest of the Story

Van Peebles’ work is still making waves. The theatrical production of his work, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” was staged outdoors by the Classical Theater of Harlem in August 2008. Featuring “pimps and whores and crooked cops,” the show is contrasted with the popular production of “Hair” that went on in Central Park in summer 2008, and showcased Van Peebles’ all-around talents, reported The New York Times. He was responsible for the book, music and lyrics for the play.

The Washington Post sums up Van Peebles’ innovation this way: “He just looked at the world around him … and if he didn’t find what he was looking for—whether in art, journalism, literature, film, theater, music or commerce—he just made it up.” 

Van Peebles’ son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, has followed in his father’s footsteps. His films include the 1991 hip-hop inspired cop movie “New Jack City” and a 2003 biopic about the making of “Sweet Sweetback” entitled “Baadasssss!”

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