Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: One Baadasssss Trip
Article by Aaron Haughton
Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a revolutionary achievement in black cinema, and is so badass that a double "a" and quintuple "s" are required for explicit emphasis. And, well, speaking of explicit, the MPAA thought Sweetback was so sexually explicit that they slapped it with an X-rating, which Van Peebles churned into one brilliantly badass tagline: "Rated X by an all-white jury." Despite The Man's attempts to keep Van Peebles' film down, it would go on to gross a staggering 15 million dollars (that's 90 million in 2016 dollars), becoming one of the highest grossing films of 1971. Forever famous for its black protagonist who sticks it to The Man and wins, this film shook the fabric of cinema and lit the match that would ignite the blaxploitation movement.
Sweetback tells a story of one African American man's triumph over The Man. After beating a couple of white cops he witnessed brutalizing a local black revolutionary, sex show performer Sweetback (Van Peebles) has to go on the run. As he flees through decrepit South Central Los Angeles with the help of the ghetto community and some disillusioned Hells Angels, Sweetback demonstrates his formidable potency through sex as well as violence, evading the police manhunt by any means necessary.
Independently produced outside of the Hollywood system with a staggering amount of inexperienced crew, the film is understandably rough around the edges; however, for all it's faults, Sweetback still possess a certain kinetic energy that continues to crackle off the screen today.
The film takes every conceivable risk, and while it doesn't stick every landing, aspects of it are still surprisingly effective. Take the opening scene for example, where young Sweetback loses his virginity to a prostitute, an act that literally transforms him from a boy into a man through a crossfade. This simple juxtaposition of images suggests more than just the passing of time, and it gives the film an otherworldly quality that Van Peebles' maintains throughout with his odd camera angles, superimpositions, reverse-key effects, box and matting effects, rack-focus shots, extreme zooms, stop-motion and step-printing, and anxiously agitated handheld camerawork.
The film's editing feels very sporadic, and at times it can become easy to lose sight of the plot, but it has an improvisational jazz quality to it that is kind of refreshing. Sure, it hits some sour notes every now and again, but it also gets locked into some nice, tight grooves as well. The most jarring aspect to Van Peebles' editing is the psychedelic effects that often streak across the screen in seemingly random and unmotivated moments. This can feel very sudden and illogical at first glance, but upon closer reflection, it helps to illustrate Sweetback's isolation and detachment from the world. Whether Van Peebles' experiments in editing and effects work for you or not, all his methodologies serve to visually reinforce the paranoid nightmare that Sweetback's life has become.
The concept of a black power film had been bubbling within Van Peebles' for a very long time. In fact, he had attempted to rewrite the script for the comedy Watermelon Man, the story of a white insurance man who wakes up to find he's black, into a more overtly black empowerment film; however, his efforts were blocked by the Hollywood suits. Following the success of Watermelon Man, Van Peebles' decided if he was going to achieve his vision, he would need to operate independently, outside of the system. So, he funneled every cent of his earnings from Watermelon Man into his developing vision of the first unabashedly black power film.
Sweetback is not always easy to watch. Some of the sequences out stay their welcome, and a lot of it the film is a character running. Due to some of the camera angles and edits, it can also be tough to ascertain exactly what's going on in some of the scenes. Some of the lengthy and dry sequences, however, are salvaged by some interesting (albeit very clumsy) camerawork and direction, and the film's upbeat soundtrack recorded by Earth, Wind & Fire (which you can learn more about in our 5 fun facts about Sweetback).
Despite the film's age and amateurish craft, it's still a very important film, and one that I would highly recommend that everyone watch, especially now. Sweetback's message sadly resonates today, as the issues of the early 70s don't feel too different from today. The end of the film teases that Sweetback will return to collect his dues. Now would be as a solid time as any for him to make his triumphant return.
Rating: 4 burning cop cars outta 5.
What do you think? Have you seen Sweetback? If not, are you inclined to check it out now? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well, sucka!