Thursday, June 09, 2005

Out June 10/Baadasssss

Man with a mission: Mario is
Mr Baadasssss

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, the first film to feature a black ghetto hero in screen history. Van Peebles's name was known in Hollywood due to the success of his film The Watermelon Man. He used his contacts in the industry to pitch his idea featuring a black man on the run after killing two racist cops.

Unsurprisingly, studio bosses were not ready to steer away from the cinematic clich├Ęs of blacks as helpless slaves or 'super-Negroes'. Van Peebles was a man with a mission and he decided he would make his film against all the odds and his effort, besides paying off handsomely at the box-office (Sweet Sweetback... beat Love Story in 1971's rankings, thanks to the endorsement of the Black Panthers) shaped the independent cinema ethos that spawned directors such as Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Blaxpoitation cinema was born.

Mario was 11 years old when his father shot his film. His documentary is based on his experience of living with his father during the frantic, nearly maddening period of shooting. Mario appeared in the original as a young boy who loses his virginity. In Baadasssss he plays his father with charm and the right amount of mythologizing. One reading of this film could be of it as a celluloid love letter from son to father.

Baadasssss is an extremely good-looking movie, a staged documentary interspersed with staged accounts of the people who were part of the making of the original. In the end, we get the real characters, which adds an element of verity to the proceedings. Van Peebles Jr steered clear of controversy and opted instead for a celebratory, groovadelic approach. For that reason, anyone who expects a very political film will be disappointed. This is entertainment, played safe from the comfort of historical distance. But why not? It's a story with a happy end and a protagonist who knew want he wanted and got it, ‘by all means necessary’ as he would say. Baadasssss is a boisterous celebration of American black culture and one of the key works that blazed a trail that had been blocked for far too long.

Mario is convincing in his own father's shoes, flares and handlebar moustache. The period reproduction is also good, even though the producers of contemporary films set in the 1970s always seem to forget to tell the actors to stop going to the gym for a while. People in the 1970s were a lot skinnier than today’s gym-buffed specimens - I noticed the same fact in Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine. I suppose a bit of muscle slickness makes for good eye candy, and it doesn't really matter. Period films are always more about the epoch in which they are made than the actual period the film is set in. In the case of this one, it makes you wish you could travel in time.

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