March 24, 2004
A Baadasssss Evening with Mario and Melvin Van Peebles
Warning: Excessive namedroppery ahead.
I went to a screening tonight for a new movie named "Baadaasssss," that tells the story of Melvin Van Peebles' adventures infiltrating Hollywood with his breakthrough film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," Melvin's son Mario directed the film, and stars as his father.
It was a much more high-brow affair than I expected.. instead of the usual frumpy press people and mid-level execs I found myself sharing a table at a cocktail party with Ken Burns and the junior Van Peebles, who discussed the Jayson Williams case with a Fox News host while waiters in black suits brought us trays of wine and sushi. On my other side were Ed Bradley, Gloria Reuben and Salman Rushdie, telling a gorgeous blonde that he hadn't seen Pirates of the Carribean yet but City of God was Amazing. I was feeling underdressed, and underfamous.
After we finished our cocktails the Sony folks ushered us into the plush seats of the screening room, where Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns stepped up to introduce the movie. My expectations were not very high as the lights went down, but I must say "Baadasssss" really moved and impressed me. Easily Mario's best work, telling a story so close to his heart must have brought out the best in him.
After the film, Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns came back up for a Q&A with Mario and Melvin. This was the highlight of the evening, the mix of personalities (euphemism for egos?) was great fun to watch. Ken Burns kept cutting Stanley off to praise the film's portrayal of their father-son relationship, stressing how it "transcended all the racial and political themes." Then before Crouch finally got his turn Melvin cracked everyone up saying "wait before we go on, let's give Stanley a drumroll, since he has this big ass bombshell question he's been dying to lay on us."
After Mario provided the proper drumroll, Stanley predictably aimed his bombshell squarely at the hip-hop nation, starting out with "well, we are in an era now where Black people are being bombarded with dehumanizing images like never before.." and Melvin cut him off incredulously, asking "what does that mean? did something happen I don't know about??" apparently wondering how today's media climate could possibly be worse in Stanley's eyes than the one their generation grew up with, that made Sweetback so revolutionary and so necessary.
Mario told his dad to let Crouch finish, and Stanley went on "I'm talking about the bad extremes of rap, without dealing with the good extremes, which are far less visible, in the bad extremes we are seeing 50 Cent dying and going up to Pimp Heaven, and you can trace a direct path from Blaxploitation movies (which your work was not a part of) down to what we are seeing now.. so I want to ask, in this movie [the original Sweetback] you were portraying a character very diferent from yourself, what were trying to achieve with that character?"
Melvin talked about being involved in the spoken word scene that led up to hip-hop, which he sees as a broad and diverse form of expression that was severely narrowed as it got co-opted by he mainstream, and Mario agreed. Mario said when they screened this new film in Chicago he spoke with former Black Panther leader Bobby Rush, who said what he loved about Sweetback was how it portrayed a flawed character who learned and evolved, was transported from a "me mentality" to a "we mentality," and the movie's great contribution was making it seem hip to be a revolutionary, through Sweetback's evolution.
Then Mario pointed out that right after Sweetback's success Hollywood took a movie named Shaft, originally meant to star a white actor, and turned it into a Black film that aped all the coolness of Sweetback but none of the substance. Instead of making it look cool to be a revolutionary, Shaft made it look cool to work for The Man.. and right after that came the even more counter-revolutionary Superfly, making it look cool to be a drug dealer. Thus Hollywood co-opted Sweetback by reproducing the "icing on the cake" but abandoning the substance that was at its core. And this, Mario said, is exactly what has happened to hip-hop: as it is increasingly co-opted by the corporate mainstream, it is increasingly reduced to little more than chocolate frosting.
Mario and Melvin were having a great time joking around with each other, and Mario seemed excited to have his friends Ernest Dickerson and Warrington Hudlin in attendance, working them into a lot of his stories. I felt honored and humbled to share this time with two generations of Black cinema pioneers, and especially feeling the love everyone there had for Melvin.
After the Q&A wrapped up I went to shake Mario's hand, waiting behind Immortal Technique and Gene Shalit. Needless to say, Immortal Technique in a cypher with Mario Van Peebles and Gene Shalit is an image I will carry with me always.