Under the right circumstances, even the most talent-challenged filmmaker can rise to the occasion and make a great movie. For instance, look at Mario Van Peebles. As a director, Van Pebbles' lack of talent has been all too evident for years, turning out such truly craptacular films as Pantherand Posse. But for some reason, the stars have finally aligned themselves, and Van Peebles can finally lay claim to a film for which he shouldn't be bitch-slapped.
Recounting how his father Melvin made the seminal 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song, the younger Van Peebles has put together BAADASSSSS!, a solid and entertaining picture that pays respect to his father, while emerging as one of the better tales of the filmmaking process. In addition to co-writing and directing, Van Peebles stars as his father, a multi-talented artist and egomaniac driven by his desire to make a film about a black street hustler who becomes a revolutionary. For an actor best known for sucking in everything he's ever done, Mario finally turns in a decent performance, bringing depth and complexity to Melvin's character.
BAADASSSSS!starts off in 1970. Coming on the heels of his first studio backed film – the sublimely hilarious Watermelon Man– Melvin Van Peebles is standing on the verge of being one of the first black directors to be embraced by Hollywood. Everyone is calling him "Mel Baby", and wanting to know what his next film will be. But his desire to not make another comedy, or feed into the black stereotypes that he witnessed watching films in his youth, has left Melvin uncertain about what to do. And that's when he decides to make a film about a performer in a live sex show, who kills some racist cops brutalizing a black man, and then escapes the corrupt justice system, vowing to return for more vengeance. The problem is, no one wants to make a movie like that. "Nothing truly revolutionary is gonna come from the studio machine," says Melvin in the film. "Independent money – that's the answer."
From the onset, Melvin is faced with setbacks and obstacles that would break an ordinary man. Money falls through. Actors quit. His crew gets arrested. He goes blind in one eye. But through it all, Melvin persists by lying, cheating and abusing everyone—including his young son Mario (Khleo Thomas)—in an effort to get his film done. When his editor tries to quit the film, Melvin beats him into submission. And despite the protest of everyone around him, the director uses his own twelve-year-old son for a sex scene.
Despite the cruel twists of fate that seemed to conspire against him at every turn, Melvin Van Peebles did complete Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song, thanks in part to a loan from Bill Cosby (played by TK Carter), and Melvin's own tenacious ambition. The black community embraced the film, with the Black Panther Party espousing its virtues as a revolutionary call to arms against police brutality. Sweetbackwould go on to be one of the highest grossing independent films of 1971, as well as one of the most important movies of the 1970s, serving as a seminal example of the power and potential of films produced outside the studio system.
Melvin Van Peebles' accomplishments as a filmmaker were tremendous, and even though the self-proclaimed "godfather of black cinema" seems to be a bit confused about who invented black film, his story is compelling nonetheless. Mario manages to convey much of that importance—as well as some of the bullshit—without turning BAADASSSSS!into a gushing love letter to his father. In fact, Mario goes to great pains to show Melvin as some driven he could be mistaken for a self-absorbed asshole, making the film as much an exorcism of certain father/son demons as it is a homage to a filmmaker. BAADASSSSS!, like the film that inspired it, is an important movie if for no other reason than it tells a story that needed to be told.
BAADASSSSS! is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film was originally shot in high definition video, and the transfer looks great. The picture is sharp, and it is virtually impossible for the untrained eye to differentiate the hi-def video from actual film.
BAADASSSSS! features 5.1 Dolby surround.
BAADASSSSS! comes with several bonus items, including an audio commentary with Mario and Melvin Van Peebles. The father and son team don't have much to say that sheds light on the making of the film (or the expand on the history presented in BAADASSSSS!), but what they have to say still comes across as fun and interesting. The disc also includes The Birth of Black Cinema, a somewhat self-congratulatory making of featurette, as well as an American Cinematheque Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles. The audio commentary, featurette, and the Q&A all pretty much say the same things over and over. Any one of the bonus features is fine on its own, but combined – especially in one viewing – it does become a bit redundant.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]