Mario van Peebles tells the story of his father's X-rated independent hit.



The blaxploitation genre was born in 1971 when Melvin van Peebles' film Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song earned an astonishing $15 million despite an X rating and minimal advertising. Sweetback's daring and often jarring mix of black power politics and explicit sex would be a prototype for future films of its kind, creating such stars as Fred Williamson and Pam Grier.


Lacking the money to employ union workers during production, Peebles disguised Sweetback as a porn flick. While that allowed him to be the first filmmaker to produce a picture outside the studio system that showed a black man successfully defying the corrupt white establishment, it also guaranteed a quick end to the genre he spawned. The leap from Grier's 1971 picture Women in Cages to 1972's Black Mama, White Mama wasn't large. Throw in a little "jive ass" revolution, keep the naked women in prison, and voila! Politically relevant skin flick. Audiences eventually dwindled, and the genre died out rather ungracefully (see Grier's sad turn as a prostitute in 1981's Fort Apache the Bronx).


Just released on DVD, Baadasssss! is Melvin's son Mario's homage to Sweetback, and there's nary a word in it about blaxploitation. Indeed, those seeing Baadasssss! who are unfamiliar with its inspiration could mistakenly think Sweetback akin to Native Son rather than a penetration-free sibling of Behind the Green Door.


Nonetheless, it's hard not to be charmed by Baadasssss!'s almost VH1-like reverence for its subject. Writer/director Mario (New Jack City) takes the role of his father, which fits well, considering that Mario's first film credit was as a 13-year-old when he appeared in Sweetback's opening scenes as Sweetback losing his virginity.


Yet Baadasssss! is no exorcism of long-repressed father-son issues. Neither is it a remake. It's a dramatized pseudo-documentary of what Melvin—writer, director, and star of Sweetback—went through to get his groundbreaking film made, including lack of money, the arrest of crew members, and the threat of stress-related blindness that forced him to wear an eye patch during post-production. The young Mario is played by Khleo Thomas, who portrays the son as doting on and completely devoted to his father.


Mario's love for his father is both the cause of and reason to overlook the film's occasional lapses into nonsense. Baadasssss! contains much talk of "independent filmmaking," as if Sweetback birthed an entire movement rather than a short-lived genre. But having seen him nearly lose his sight in pursuit of his dreams, it's understandable if Mario is blind to his father's true legacy.


--Joshua Avram

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