Baadasssss! Movie Review
"Baadassss!" is Mario Van Peebles' fond commemoration of his cantankerous father's bull-headed cinematic audacity. An unblinking, if slightly golden-toned, account of the making of Melvin Van Peebles' violent, dark, gritty and groundbreaking "Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song," it's a clear labor of love, and so much the better for it.
"Sweetback" -- a "ghetto Western" about a slick, taciturn pimp who becomes a hunted man for killing a couple thug cops who beat a black militant -- scared the hell out of Hollywood, yet its success ($15 million in limited release in 1971) gave rise to scores of shallower imitators that became the blaxploitation genre of "Coffy" and "Shaft."
Getting the divisive, patently anti-establishment film made was a nightmare of financing and bounced checks ("Baadasssss!" implies that drug money was to be used before Bill Cosby stepped in), of casting (writer-director Melvin played the lead when he couldn't find the right actor), of union problems (the industry guilds were practically all-white at the time -- and expensive), of controversy (an X rating), and of distribution (only two privately-owned theaters would touch it at first).
In the process Melvin literally stressed himself blind in one eye (temporarily), and his dedication and determination are what drive this devoted, no-punches-pulled retelling of a defining period in the history of black cinema -- and in both Van Peebles' lives. A reluctant then-13-year-old Mario, played here by the talented Khleo Thomas ("Holes"), was recruited by his single-minded pop for a pivotal virginity-loss sex scene.
"Baadasssss!" -- written by, directed by and starring Mario as his father -- is not only a very personal account of all these details, but also a savvy stylistic homage to "Sweetback's" shoe-string methods and a powerful primer of historical and sociological context. It perfectly places the viewer in Melvin's mindset of boiling frustration with the black man's place in movies at the time.
Melvin walked away from a three-picture deal with a major studio (after a box office success with the comedy "Watermelon Man") to make a picture that depicted his trodden-on community and "all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted."
Although "Baadassss!" has its failings -- like Melvin's supposed "eureka" moment, which is little more than the line "That's it! I'd make a movie about a real brother!" -- the younger Van Peeples' vivid twin senses of struggle and substantive import lead to some creative filmmaking (Melvin's private moments have the intimate command of a one-man stage play), and some powerful and direct social commentary.
But that's not to say the movie is without a sense of humor. In-character interview segments (plus interviews with the real people involved) provide punchy remembrances. Joy Bryant ("Antwone Fisher") is a brassy soul-sister delight as Melvin's secretary, who apparently turned "every entrance into an audition" (and whose connection to the band Earth, Wind and Fire lead aided the advent of the soundtrack album). And in addition to playing his father, Mario portrays an imaginary alter ego -- Melvin's self-doubt in the swaggering form of Sweet Sweetback himself.
Even these lighter touches have an abrasive edge, however. Like his father, Mario made no concessions to commercialism, and "Baadasssss!" is without question his unadulterated vision (albeit based in part on his father's autobiographical book about his film). Only in its last-reel depiction of "Sweetback's" first screening, at a second-run theater in Detroit, does Mario's homage take on a hint of the conventional -- but only in the sense that the film's runaway word-of-mouth success has been symbolically condensed. And by that point, it's easy to forgive Van Peebles a little joyful indulgence.