Melvin Van Peebles inspired a generation of young filmmakers to be active. His early movies were shot on tiny budgets — and shot through with provocative, politically charged humor, but were hugely impactful. The celebrated director died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.
His family, Janus Films and The Criterion Collection announced his death in a statement on Wednesday (Sept. 22). “We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89,” The Criterion Collection tweeted. “In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”
He was best known for his films Watermelon Man and his main role in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but gave himself barely any lines.
The 89-year-old director was born in Chicago in 1932. He helped pave the way for the renegade genre known as blaxpolitation, with movies that were bitingly funny, sexually swaggering and occasionally violent, that put Black protagonists front and center. His heroes were hustlers and revolutionaries; Sweetback was considered so outrageous, it was originally rated X. It was also a huge financial success.
He was also the father of Mario Van Peebles, with whom he wrote and directed the movie Panther in 1995. The elder Van Peebles told NPR that year he considered that film a history lesson for kids too young to remember the Panthers’ community activism.
“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.
“But more than a history lesson, because history can tell a lot of stories,” Melvin continued. “This history lesson also encourages the young people to be active.”
“All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film’s release.
“I could have called it ‘The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback.’ But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them,” he told The Associated Press in 2003. “So I said ‘Ba-ad Asssss,’ like you really say it.”
Made for around $500,000 (including $50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $14 million at the box office despite an X-rating, limited distribution and mixed critical reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film “an outrage.”
A born self-promoter (he marketed the film with the tagline “rated X by an all-white jury”), Van Peebles used every media opportunity to his advantage. He did his best to