Cult 101: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Director: Melvin Van Peebles Run Time: 97 min. Rating: R Release Year: 1971
Starring: Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster
Country: United States
Presented as part of the 2023 edition of Cult 101.
About the film:
A landmark of Black and American independent cinema that would send shock waves through the culture, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was Melvin Van Peebles’s second feature film, after he walked away from a contract with Columbia in order to make his next film on his own terms.
Acting as producer, director, writer, composer, editor, and star, Van Peebles created the prototype for what Hollywood would eventually co-opt and make into the blaxploitation hero: a taciturn, perpetually blank-faced performer in a sex show, who, when he’s pushed too far by a pair of racist cops looking to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, goes on the run through a lawless underground of bikers, revolutionaries, sex workers, and hippies in a kill-or-be-killed quest for liberation from white oppression.
The film’s incendiary politics are matched by Van Peebles’s revolutionary style, in which jagged jump cuts, kaleidoscopic superimpositions, and psychedelic sound design come together in a sustained howl of rage and defiance.
About the filmmaker:
Melvin Van Peebles was an American director, writer, composer, actor, and one-man creative revolutionary who jolted American independent cinema to new life with his explosive stylistic energy and unfiltered expression of Black consciousness. He altered the course of film history with the anarchic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and led a varied career with forays into European art cinema with The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967) – based on his own French-language novel “La Permission” – mainstream Hollywood comedy with Watermelon Man (1970), and Broadway musicals with “Don’t Play Us Cheap” adapted from his own stage play. Peebles was a transformative artist whose caustic social observation, radical formal innovation, and uncompromising vision established a new cinematic model for Black creative independence. In 1953, he graduated with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.See our upcoming films