The lore of Melvin Van Peebles’ breakthrough picture is well known, especially since the maverick auteur’s son, Mario Van Peebles, made an entire movie about the creation of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. As it happens, Mario’s highly entertaining behind-the-scenes flick, Badasssss! (2003), is much more accessible than Melvin’s guerilla-style original, in part because Mario’s narrative juxtaposes the overwrought subject matter of Sweet Sweetback with amazing tales about the obstacles Melvin surmounted to get the picture completed.
That said, Sweet Sweetback occupies a unique place in both film history and sociopolitical history. Perhaps more than any other movie made by an African-American director in the ’70s, Sweet Sweetback captures the rage of the Black Power era by presenting a grim parable about a dude who fights back after getting fucked over by The Man. Sweet Sweetback was famously embraced by members of the Black Panther Party during early screenings, and this groundswell of support helped transform a scrappy little underground project into a surprise hit—despite being made for just $150,000, the movie grossed more than $15 million.
Melvin Van Peebles’ storyline is lurid and nasty. In a brief prologue, young Mario plays the title character as a teenaged orphan—Sweetback earns his nickname by demonstrating tremendous sexual powers while losing his virginity in an L.A. whorehouse. After the movie cuts to the present, Melvin takes over the title role. (In addition to starring, he wrote, produced, directed, and scored the movie.) Now grown into a regular performer at the whorehouse who impresses crowds with his size and stamina while screwing in public, Sweetback is stuck in a degrading life cycle. Naturally, things get worse. Through a convoluted series of events, Sweetback gets framed for a murder and handcuffed to a Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). Eventually, Sweetback and Mu-Mu escape police custody, resulting in an extended chase. By the climax of the movie, Sweetback makes a solo run for the Mexican border, surviving through the support of black strangers and, at regular intervals, by trading sex for patronage from women.
Viewed through the most forgiving lens, Sweet Sweetback is a revolutionary fable that both employs and subverts clichés about African-American male identity. It’s also, unmistakably, a call for open revolution—if not necessarily violent uprisings, then at the very least angry protests against the racially imbalanced status quo. Because the picture is so politically charged, appraising Sweet Sweetback’s merits as a cinematic experience is something of a pointless endeavor—rather than being pure entertainment, Sweet Sweetback is an incendiary statement.
And, indeed, Melvin’s politics are more evolved than his filmmaking skills. Certain segments of Sweet Sweetback have great power thanks to the use of trippy montages accompanied by dense sound design, and some scenes pack a punch simply because they contain so much sex and violence. But while the director/star brings innate tough-guy charisma to his leading performance, the supporting cast mostly comprises nonactors, giving many scenes an amateurish quality. Further, the camerawork is dodgy, with lots of grainy shots and hard-to-read nighttime photography. Yet in the end, it’s the attitude of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song that makes the movie so unique, and that loud-and-proud perspective is characterized by a provocative slogan on the movie’s poster: “Rated X by an All-White Jury.”
Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song: FREAKY