An engaging new docu from the IFC, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and enjoy it) is a look at the prolific filmmaker, writer and performing artist Melvin Van Peebles. Best known as the director and star of Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song he's been causing a commotion since the late 1950s. Joe Angio's film uses excellent clips and good interviews to chart Van Peebles' career, from studious kid to his present position as an elder statesman of gentle provocation.
How to Eat Your Watermelon shows Melvin Van Peebles to be much more than a stock Angry Black Man. This will be news to those who know Van Peebles only as the ferocious anti-hero Sweet Sweetback, the renegade who gives The Man a taste of his own medicine. Typical for Van Peebles, and what sets him apart from so many other artists of any color, is the fact that he wisely retained all financial interest in the independently financed hit film. When the movie made millions, it was Van Peebles that got rich, and not a corporate studio.
Everything about Van Peebles' career indicates a shrewd man maximizing his opportunities. Fresh out of the Army, he tries his hand at a couple of short films, and wastes no time before heading to Denmark in search of better opportunities. He's invited to show his films at the Cinematheque Francaise and elects to stay in Paris even though it means starting almost penniless on the streets. But Van Peebles is soon speaking the language and writing for the anarchic French humor magazine Hara Kiri. Several years later, he makes his first feature film, the impressive Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). It's about a black American soldier stationed in France whose own buddies turn him in for fraternizing with a white woman. The film refuses to fit into the liberal Civil Rights mold: Van Peebles' hero is an individual, not a symbolic victim. His suffering does not plead for audience sympathy.
The docu then tackles the Black Power agitation epic Sweet Sweetback, which scared whites and made millions in independent release. The film's crude style matches its In-Your-Face attitude: no matter what The Man does to put Sweet down, he comes back stronger. Primed to think that Black Panthers were springing up everywhere, white America shuddered at the profane title and Van Peebles' hard face on the posters. The docu makes a good case for Sweetback as the only really revolutionary black film of its time. Cotton Comes to Harlem and Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree were studio movies anchored well within established Hollywood parameters. Van Peebles had no interest in the Blaxploitation pictures that began with Shaft, a commercial genre 'ghetto' that gave black performers the opportunity to play mostly drug pushers, junkies and gunmen.
Peebles turned his energies elsewhere. He continued making his unusual spoken-word record albums, riffing on his favorite themes. He used the earnings from Sweetback to finance his Broadway play about urban life, Don't Play Us Cheap. Always busy acting, writing and producing, Van Peebles also composed the music for most of his films. A collaborator remarks at Van Peebles' primitive approach to composing at the piano. He renames middle C as "1" and goes up the keyboard a key at a time. A black key becomes 5½, and so forth. In everything Van Peebles does, his method follows a direct line to the 'creative' part, bypassing most of the traditional 'qualifying' steps. His music has been acknowledged as a precursor to Rap, especially in its strong sense of attitude.
Although he can simmer with the best Angry Men much of Van Peebles' work exhibits a strong sense of humor. His albums have whimsical titles, as does this docu. One of his more famous photos shows the performer sitting with a sheepish look on his face, wearing a T-Shirt printed with his Sweetback motto: "Rated X by an All-White Jury."
The docu probably softens its subject somewhat, but the interviewees offer plenty of clues to the artist's personality. Van Peebles' friends and children talk about his almost Herculean sex drive, and he states that as a kid one of his main goals was to have sex with lots of women. Collaborators talk about Van Peebles being "All Work" when he's working, which is completely believable considering how prolific he's been. We see the artist typing away in a small and fairly humble apartment. He reportedly prefers to live well within his income.
Van Peebles continues to impress in his elder years. He simply decided that he wanted to work in the Stock Market, and after some difficulty passing the tests traded on the floor with the rest of the brokers. Friends were shocked when he worked only a few months and then wrote a book about the experience. Van Peebles also presented humorous 'visual editorials' on the TV news in New York. He attends a gallery opening where two artists have constructed a life-sized Melvin Van Peebles replica, right down to a matching costume and the cigar in his mouth. How To may not show every side of this unique man, but what we see is fascinating.
HVe's DVD of How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and enjoy it) looks and sounds fine in an enhanced widescreen transfer with good color. The clips from his old movies vary somewhat in quality, but Story of a 3-Day Pass makes us want to see more. For extras we get a trailer and three Van Peebles "Channel 5 TV News Commentaries" on The Housing Situation, Religion & Politics and X-Rated Movies. Finally, Van Peebles' recording alter ego Brer Soul performs with Roadkill in 1998: You've Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams and Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pull Her Coattail.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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