5 Fun Facts About Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Article by Aaron Haughton
As we mentioned briefly in our article on the history of blaxploitation cinema, and again in even greater detail in our analysis of the film, Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback is a major achievement in African American cinema. It was the first "black power" film, and even became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. It would also pioneer the movement that would later be referred to as blaxploitation, and become one of the highest grossing films of 1971.
In addition to all the factoids and historical tidbits we've already discussed, we're keeping the blaxploitation train chuggin' along with 5 fun facts you (probably) don't know about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
- A whole lot of stunting.
Aside from a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby (who didn't want any equity, just the original loan amount as a return), Sweetback was entirely self-funded by Van Peebles, who put every cent of his earnings from his previous picture, Watermelon Man, into the film. With a shoestring budget, Van Peebles couldn't afford a stunt man, so he did what anyone else would do: he performed them all himself. One scene in the film required Sweetback (who was also played by Van Peebles) to jump off a bridge. Van Peebles was hoping to get the shot in one take, but he ended up having to do it nine times. That's dedication.
- "A workplace injury."
So, remember when we said that Van Peebles performed all the stunts in the film? Well, apparently, part of those stunts included appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes, which would cause Van Peebles to contract gonorrhea from one of the actresses over the course of the shoot. It was then that Van Peebles had a sudden stroke of genius. He decided he would apply for compensation from the Directors Guild because technically he "got hurt on the job." The Directors Guild ponied up the dough for the "damages," and Van Peebles turned around and used that money to buy more film. How baadasssss is that?!
- Like father, like son.
Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, 13-years old at the time of the film's shooting, makes his screen debut in Sweetback as the younger iteration of the titular character. In the "shocking" opening of the film, young Sweetback loses his virginity to a prostitute, which transforms him into the older, Marvin Van Peebles version of Sweetback. This scene was censored on British editions of the DVD because it breaches the Child Protection Act, but unlike his father's sex scenes in the film, Mario's was clearly simulated.
- Earth, Wind, & Fire for dirt cheap.
Just like with the stunts, Van Peebles had no funds to hire a composer for the film's score, so he did it himself. Because he didn't know how to read or write music, he numbered all of the keys on a piano so he could remember the melodies. The film's music was performed by the then-unknown group Earth, Wind & Fire, who were living in a single apartment at the time with hardly any food to eat. Van Peebles' secretary was dating one of the band members, and convinced him to contact them about performing the music for the film. Van Peebles paid the band with a check that later bounced. To this day, the band has still not been paid for their contribution to the film. That's cold, especially considering how integral to the film the score became.
- Armed on set.
Van Peebles and several key crew members were armed while shooting because it was dangerous to attempt to create a film without the support of the union. One day, Van Peebles looked for his gun, and couldn't find it. He later found out that someone had unknowingly put it in the prop box. When filming the scene in which Beetle is interrogated by police, who pop off a shot next to both of his ears, everyone feared that the real gun would be picked up instead of the prop. They ended up choosing correctly...
Another incident occurred while shooting a sequence with members of the Hells Angels. One of the bikers told Van Peebles they wanted to leave, and Van Peebles responded by telling them they were paid to shoot until the scene was over and that's what they're gonna do. The biker didn't like that too much. He took out a knife and started cleaning his fingernails with it in an act of intimidation. In response, Van Peebles snapped his fingers, and his strapped crew members were standing there with their sights aimed at the biker. Needless to say, all the bikers stayed to shoot the rest of the scene.
What do you think? Did we leave out your favorite factoid? Did you learn anything new? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well, sucka!