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Melvin Van Peebles (1932–2021), influential actor and filmmaker

by Linnea Crowther

Melvin Van Peebles was an actor and filmmaker best known for his influential 1971 film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”

Career in film and elsewhere

Van Peebles wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in “Sweetback,” as well as composing its score despite being unable to read music. The result was a classic of indie cinema, created on a shoestring budget. Van Peebles’ other films include “Watermelon Man” (1970), “Identity Crisis” (1989), and “Gang in Blue” (1996). He also wrote plays and novels, recorded music, and had a career as an options trader on the American Stock Exchange.

The influence of “Sweetback”

In ”Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the story of a man fighting police brutality, Van Peebles sought to create the first Black power film. Van Peebles capitalized on the X rating given to the film by MPAA, giving it the tagline “Rated X by an all-white jury.” After debuting in just two theaters – one in Detroit and one in Atlanta – “Sweetback” quickly gained a wide audience, expanding to theaters across the country, and brought in enough box office receipts to become more successful than any other indie film before it.

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Huey Newton (1942–1989) was so impressed with Van Peebles’ film that he made it required viewing for members of the Black Panthers. “Sweetback” launched the blaxploitation genre – though Van Peebles himself hated the term and some critics argue that the movie doesn’t fit the definition of that genre – and inspired future filmmakers including Spike Lee, John Singleton (1968–2019), and Van Peebles’ own son, Mario Van Peebles.

Notable quote

“Personally, I do movies the way I cook. I put in what I like, in case nobody else likes it and I have to eat it for the rest of the week.” —from a 2004 interview with AV Club

Tributes to Melvin Van Peebles

Full Obituary: The Hollywood Reporter

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