Registering the Registry 2020: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, the blaxploitation movement begins with an unconventionally conceived, shot, and cut picture of a black sex worker on the run from police whose fellows he murdered as the whole world tells him he won’t get away. It’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it has a decidedly more complicated legacy than even its plot description implies. Read on and find out how!
I write today with a considerable amount of reservation. See, I first watched Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song mid-summer last year, right before I started Registering the Registry, and came away with a very definite impression of the film in my head. It struck me as a film deserving every inch its reputation as a major work from an independent filmmaker who struggled to get his radical vision out there by any means necessary, flying against the unions and formal financiers and the MPAA to do things his way and give the American screen something entirely new and dangerous. It ALSO struck me as a work completely and totally poisoned from the very first scene, when director/producer/writer/star Melvin van Peebles introduces his character Sweet Sweetback as a child played by his then-pre-pubescent son Mario, who in turn introduces the film’s preoccupation with sex as power by simulating sex with a nude grown woman into a montage that ends with his father doing the same. As you might imagine, sitting down to watch a film and being met with the director’s young son engaged in full on child pornography felt like a firehose straight at the windpipe. In my subsequent review, I noted, “The movie’s other merits are of low value in my eyes without these elements, but considering everything contained within the film, I regard it as a blight deserving no praise,” and “One scene of child pornography is one scene too fucking many, though, so while I’ll concede van Peebles the historical win, I still think his actions here disgusting, and feel just a lottle dirty for sucking it up to praise his movie in the name of fairness.”
I honestly considered simply posting last year’s review in this space and leaving it there. While rewatch and further reading has revealed further merit to the parts of Sweet Sweetback not engaged in child abuse, I’ve little wish to stick around the film longer than necessary, or continue praising van Peebles for the dedication and hard-assed “we do it my way or no way at all’ attitude that led to him forcing his son to strip nude and grind against a grown woman on-camera. Believe me, I put in the legwork looking for some additional context, to at least say, “OK, I still think this is awful, but there are additional factors pertaining to the film and maybe the scene’s value which let me move past it.” I rented and watched Mario van Peebles’ 2003 docudrama Baadasssss, in which he plays his father in a dramatization of Sweet Sweetback’s production under his own pen and direction, including sequences showing Melvin’s emotional bluntness and unwillingness to consider how this course of action would harm his son, even going so far as to justify it by saying he suffered abuse at his own father’s hands and came out stronger. I selected and read pieces from both the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service praising the film and its opening pornographic scene as illustrative of black sexuality’s power to transform and break oppression, and Ebony arguing the film falls well short of its revolutionary accolades or any forgiveness for its audacity. I watched a whole goddamned documentary about van Peebles’ life, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It Too), in which Mario features regularly praising his father as a genius whose questionable decisions ultimately don’t matter in face of the legacy he built. I read and puzzled and considered a good long while these last two weeks just how I could say this is MAYBE OK for its contribution to the arts, and….
I just can’t. Mario’s own insistence of being fine with his father’s abuse is untrustworthy given the veneration he displays towards his father in both films including his perspective. Nothing I read engaging with the film and its early sex scene as a positive or negative stopped to say, “What the FUCK is van Peebles doing with his son?”, merely turning the film over and over and interrogating the scene’s merit as art. On rewatch, I look at the child Mario being actively exploited by his own flesh and blood, as a means to establish the character his father plays throughout the rest of the film as a sexual beast whose penis unlocks the door to freedom at multiple turns, and I am nothing but disgusted with the thought of championing the film. This was wrong, wrong and harmful and disgraceful and worth van Peebles’ arrest had anyone cared to book him on charges at any point during the statute of limitations. The man belonged in a hole for the rest of his life over this, regardless the brilliance on display everywhere else in his film.
So, we ARE going to engage with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song today, because I believe I’d do my audience a disservice if I simply ranted about morality for a few paragraphs and then blasted off until next week. Need to engage in some art/artist separation to make it happen, though not any usual sort. Here’s how it will be: throughout this piece, I want everyone reading to know I have one message they should keep in mind, no matter what I say regarding Melvin van Peebles’ accomplishments, his prescience, his observations, his technique, his goals, anything: fuck that guy, he sexually abused his kid to make his movie. Bring this sentiment to the forefront any time we get too deep into praise, and bear in mind, while there are many good things inherent to and represented by Sweet Sweetback deserving celebration and preservation in the National Film Registry, its preservation also means preserving Mario van Peebles’ abuse at his father’s hand for all time. Thus inadequately inoculated, let us proceed.
It was like this: Melvin van Peebles, independent filmmaker, writer, musician, and budding black revolutionary, had just come off a modest first-time studio success with 1970’s comedy Watermelon Man, about Godfrey Cambridge as a white man who wakes up one morning to find he is now black. The film earned van Peebles’ an opening to take a three picture contract from Colombia, but he instead followed his own muse to make a film about a tough-as-nails brother who fucks with the man, agitates the white order, and gets away with it in the name of everyone who’d had enough of watching black Americans play fool or martyr in the movies. Operating on exceptionally tight funds (with meaningful cash influxes only distributed at a late, late hour courtesy one Bill Cosby), van Peebles scheduled a sub-month shoot which eventually crunched to just nineteen days, accomplished with a cast and crew of primarily third world minority immigrants or immigrant-descendants, working around Los Angeles acting and production guilds and their disapproval of non-union crews on their turf by disguising the whole thing as a porno shoot. He would, over the course of filming, perform every dangerous stunt to save money, deal with violent and armed elements amongst his crew, and engage in several unsimulated sex scenes, at one point contracting gonorrhea and using the workman’s comp check to buy more filmstock. During post, van Peebles secured the services of a then-unknown Earth, Wind, and Fire to perform the backing to his frantic spoken-word music on the back of a bad check, chopped his footage in a panicky cross-cutting style, and took advantage of the MPAA’s objections over extreme content in his film to promote Sweet Sweetback as “RATED X BY AN ALL-WHITE JURY” while pounding the pavement and promoting the film all on his lonesome. Under circumstances not involving a man who abused his son to get his movie made, this would all seem incredibly impressive, illustrative of the independent spirit at its best.
As to the picture itself, the plot is simple on purpose. Sweetback works as a “freak show” entertainer in an inner-city brothel, dressing in drag for a striptease with the women until the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother comes along to transform him into the ultimate in sexual conquest. The police frequent this brothel, and one evening they force owner Beetle (Simon Chuckster) to hand over Sweetback on a false murder charge, since any black ass will do for a scapegoat in their eyes. While under arrest, the police catch young revolutionary Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales) engaged in some kind of deliberately vague demonstration, and determine to beat him to death out in the middle of nowhere. Finding this intolerable, Sweetback uses his handcuffs to beat the officers to death instead, and so formal plotting exits the film. From hereon, Sweetback is on the run, occasionally entering a friendly-ish location where he finds Beetle or a poor pastor sympathetic to his cause but entirely unwilling to help or harbor, occasionally paired with Mu-Mu again as the pair make a break for the border, occasionally cornered by the likes of a biker gang with competitive sex against their leader the only way out. For the most part, however, Sweetback is on the run, silent beneath a jittery score that accompanies his journey across town, visualized with a kind of stuttery, unfocused approach which captures in whole the sense of dodging the long arm of the law.
It is these passages of Sweetback which deserve highest praise, if we are to accept any part of the film deserves praise given the larger context. Handheld guerilla shots, fleeting glimpses of van Peebles crossing the street or wandering down an alley, the screen split to find him at multiple angles or imposed to show Sweetback flanked by smaller Sweetbacks in a dash down empty drainage canals or streets of urban decay. When the film chooses to focus, it doesn’t take long before the local populace have set a police car alight for Sweetback’s benefit and sent the camera’s eye aflutter once more, or else for his sexual conquest of the biker leader to explode the scene into multiplying crossfades, or his flight into the desert to become a supremely surreal experience. The soundtrack gradually develops from strictly instrumental pieces into Sweetback screaming for his legs to do him right as he laughs incoherently at the impossibility of his situation and the necessity to keep on running with his throat gone raw from screaming; eventually, a choir of voices begin to shout him down, discouraging his continued progress in-between scattered snatches of spirituals and mantras, and he has to counter back any black man has only what he’s got in feet and grit, how the angels’ mocking his flight only shows their inability to better themselves. Any time the film cuts from Sweetback rubbing piss-soaked mud into a bullet wound or gulping at a shallow puddle’s dirty contents to the tune of this argument against the heavens and history themselves, it is to show the hypocrisy of the police force as a chief weakly apologizes to a pair of black officers for describing their suspect with the N-word, or explore the minority communities of South LA voicing their support for Sweetback and leading the cops off his trail in similarly rapid-fire interview segments.
All this gives the impression Sweetback is in a struggle against forces which should, by all expected rights, have him in a noose before the first act’s up. van Peebles made this film for those who’d grown tired of seeing any remotely independent or non-neutered black character made an example of by picture’s end, and so the movie quakes with the impossibility of Sweetback’s escape. Its structural foundations shift, its view on the action seizures, its soundtrack actively fights the main character. Sweetback kills yet another pair of cops to ensure Mu-Mu can get away, only for a later scene to show Mu-Mu in the morgue as an incidental background detail to the police identifying his also-dead accomplice. Those who make any contact with Sweetback, however unhelpful, are punished for their proximity, as when the police shoot both Beetle’s ears out for genuinely not knowing where his former employee went. Scenes in the city are presented to feel like the curtain will fall any minute, scenes in the desert like the curtain has fallen and the ambulatory black man on screen right now should probably lie down and let the vultures take him. Whatever Sweetback accomplishes, the film pushes back on, making it seem like he MUST eventually fall to the dogs, he HAS to eventually fail. A man can push back, bite the hand that keeps him down, but he should know doing so will only end in his extermination. The very form of narrative film cannot keep it steady at the THOUGHT Sweetback might escape without punishment.
Despite this, he does. Following one final tease in which two cops unleash the hounds and leave the audience wondering, we see several of the mutts dead in a river on the border, and are told to WATCH OUT because Sweetback’ll come back to collect some dues one day. Credits over the distant mountains and visions of industrial plants. Whole journey accomplished: brother who blindly accepted his lot in life forced to watch his oppressors destroy a fellow man, lashes out in disgust, holds the course, overcomes all doubts, becomes a revolutionary in his own right by simple fact of having done it at all. Not even the forces of cinematic convention can keep this man from getting away, not when he’s feet on his person, determination to survive in his heart. We have heard the whole Baadasssss Song, and it is, indeed, fairly baadasssss.
Naturally the film absolutely exploded amongst audiences and critics, grossing $15 million off a budget of $150,000, waking studios and distributors to the possibility of courting black audiences for big money with one hell of a dropkick to the head. Very few of the subsequent blaxploitation pictures made within the Hollywood system matched Sweet Sweetback for radical content, likely because telling the story of largely-silent protagonist who kills cops, screws his way through a succession of prostitutes and outlaws, and implicitly says he’d do it all again requires a hardened attitude and intent to acknowledge just how fucked American life is for minority communities well beyond any investor’s nerve. Not to mention how the film courted controversy at every turn, from becoming mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther party to many intellectuals within the African-American community objecting to the idea of screwing one’s way to freedom — can’t exactly match THAT and expect your money back every time, regardless how much bank the inspiring work drew. Certainly, van Peebles himself never spun Sweet Sweetback’s success into further mainstream filmic opportunities, eventually pivoting into live theater, further musical endeavors, independent projects even smaller than Sweetback, and eventually options trading. Still, he’d swung the hammer, thrown the stone, made exactly the movie he wanted which swore and fucked and challenged with the profane and visually extreme as necessary components of showing the police as an inherently corrupt institution and the thought of a man who can fight back without taking a single blow himself as vital to an oppressed culture’s ability to organize and actually fight back. If you’re only going to strike the American public’s heart the one time, may as well get everyone activated and spark a whole cinematic movement while you’re at it.
All fine, all dandy. Maybe goes a little long towards the end, but it’s fine. More than demonstrative his capabilities as a filmmaker, more than sufficient to earn a slot in the Registry. You boil things down, and, “Effectively kickstarted blaxploitation while being well-made and politically radical in its own right,” probably should get a picture in the Registry. Still, Melvin van Peebles ALSO forced his preteen son to simulate sex with a woman in front of a camera, and distributed that image to millions upon millions of people. Rather sours the whole thing and makes one want to spit for having used their mouth to say anything much nice about the production. Whatever artistic, historical, and cultural merits there are to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, they coexist alongside a shocking example of abuse, and it mortifies me beyond words how no publication I could find from back on release condemned the act in sufficiently strong terms. I cannot do anything about Mario van Peebles’ abuse, for it happened fifty years ago. I cannot do anything about Sweet Sweetback’s cultural impact, for quite a few good things were born from its impact; the world is certainly poorer without the likes of Cleopatra Jones and The Mack. I cannot claim censorship of the offending portions or boycotts of further distribution on this film would help anything, for the matter has long past, and attempting to hide them from public sight only does damage by way of denying it happened.
But fuck me sideways, can I sure register I don’t think it’s right, and furthermore say I really hope the universe doesn’t contrive a reason for me to visit the Baadasssss Song a third time, or at least not until some far-flung day from now. I seriously do not like watching and reviewing the same sealed-in-celluloid act of child abuse twice in the span of a year for the sake of intellectual honesty and artistic fairness. Oygh.
Well, that was an unpleasant revisit. Least it’s over and done, and turned over to you, my good audience. Leave any thoughts and counter-opinions you’ve to share in the comments, and stick around for next week’s feature, why don’t you? In 1972, Stax Records commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots with a concert featuring their biggest talent across R&B, soul, funk, and jazz, a major gathering of African-Americans, reportedly the largest outside any civil rights demonstration to this point in history. Mel Stuart filmed the concert, distributing it in 1973 and they called event and film alike Wattstax! Rent or buy it through Amazon, YouTube, Apple, DirecTV, your choice of poison, and I shall see you next time!