Melvin Van Peebles Launched Film Genre

Younger filmmakers pay tribute to director, playwright, and options trader
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 25, 2021 1:57 PM CDT
Melvin Van Peebles Launched Film Genre
Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles, and Mandela Van Peebles attend History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall in 2016 in New York.   (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright, and musician whose work ushered in the "blaxploitation" wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. Van Peeples, sometimes called the "godfather of modern Black cinema," was 89. "Dad knew that Black images matter," his son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, said in a statement Wednesday, the AP reports, adding: "We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people."

The multitalented Van Peebles wrote books and plays, and recorded albums—playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market. But he was best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, one of the most influential movies of its time. The low-budget, art house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary. With its depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment told from a Black perspective, it set the tone for a genre and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.

A younger generation of Black filmmakers mourned Van Peebles'. Barry Jenkins, the Moonlight director, said on Twitter: "He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame." Spike Lee said Van Peebles was a big supporter of his own film career. "We have lost another giant," he posted, per Deadline. Actor David Alan Grier called Van Peebles "the true revolutionary, an artistic gangsta, cultural disrupter who forever changed the game." In 2010, Van Peebles had told the New York Times, "I didn’t even know I had a legacy. I do what I want to do." The New York Film Festival, which opened Friday, already had planned to celebrate him on the 50th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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