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Baadasssss!

Conventional wisdom insists that Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971) was the first Blaxploitation film, which simply isn't true — Cotton Comes to Harlem was released the previous year, and it's the very definition of Blaxploitation. But what makes Sweetback so important is that it was the first Blaxploitation title that was hugely successful with black audiences. The movie — which cost next to nothing by Hollywood standards — went on to gross over $15 million at the box-office and paved the way for the genre that saved the day's Hollywood studios (after producing numerous big-budget flops in the late '60s, low-budget Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly helped put the studio's books in the black, so to speak). Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song also introduced many of the genre's conventions, including crooked white cops playing the heavies and an antihero who not only survived in the end, but prospered. The majority of Blaxploitation films are about larger-than-life gangsters (Black Caesar) or revenge fantasies (Coffy) — but what marks Sweetback (though it also contains elements of fantasy) is that it's much grittier, much more of the moment, shot quickly with handheld cameras on urban streets to lend it greater verisimilitude. Later-era Blaxploitation was seen as just entertainment — Sweetback was meant to be incendiary. And though there's no denying how important the film is in the history of American movies, like so much groundbreaking art, what it represents is more interesting than the object itself. And like Hearts of Darkness before it, Mario Van Peebles' Baadasssss! (2004) is a movie that's more compelling than the movie it's about, with the younger Van Peebles recounting the story of how his father got his picture made. Following Melvin Van Peebles' book Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song : A Guerrilla Filmmaking Manifesto, Baadasssss! starts as Melvin (played by Mario) is contemplating his next picture. After 1970's Watermelon Man, Melvin has no idea what to do next, and, reflecting on the turbulent '60s, he imagines his "Ghetto Western" Sweetback, a film about a man who becomes an outlaw because crooked white cops are trying to set him up. But though he has a three-picture deal with Columbia, no one in Hollywood wants anything to do with it. Convinced he has to make the movie, Melvin then takes the idea to independent distributors with the help of hippie friend Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson), and after finally securing funding from a drugged-out rich guy, he begins production, only to find that his financier is having legal problems. In a corner — but convinced of the film's greatness — Melvin decides to pay for the movie himself. Also going against the grain of Hollywood at the time, Melvin populates the production crew with minorities, including cameraman Jose Garcia (Paul Rodriguez) and sound guy Big T (Terry Crewes). Trying desperately to hold his project together, he has to borrow money from Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter), but then all sorts of problems keep coming up — the crew is arrested at one point, and Melvin's sight slips due to his work overload. Even when the picture is finished, no studio wants to touch it. It then earns an X-rating (by an all white jury, which Van Peebles used as a selling point). And when Sweetback finally is released, it's only in two theaters — both as part of a triple-feature.

*          *          *

Though the eventual success of Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song is preordained, few things are more compelling than watching underdogs struggle and succeed against the odds, dealing with the sorts of issues that arise when working outside of the system, and with little — if any — support. Mario Van Peebles gets good mileage out of all the problems and headaches his father went through making Sweetback, and it makes for a powerful movie about movies, similar to Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Like Wood (and all great films about art), it's a story about a man who is committed to his vision, and the dedication of Melvin Van Peebles comes across well, even if he can be a bastard at times. But harried artists are interesting artists, especially when they're set on creating something vital and important. It's odd to have Mario playing his father Melvin, and the levels of metatextuality are increased by having Mario as a child written as a prominent character as well (played by Khelo Thomas) — but as Melvin says on the commentary, nobody shied away from showing his bad side, which makes this awkward biography more palatable. Indeed, much of Melvin's anger is directed at his relationship with his son. But what makes Baadasssss so distinctive is that, as Melvin says, he's doing something more important than himself. While Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song hasn't aged well at all — and out of context loses its meaning — Baadasssss helps place the film back in its proper relief. Mario Van Peebles actually makes Sweetback important again. Columbia TriStar presents Baadasssss in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. A loaded set, the disc comes with an audio commentary by Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, in which the two bounce off each other while discussing the struggles of getting both films made. "The Birth of Black Cinema" (23 min.) is a "making-of" spot featuring interviews with cast members and many of the people behind Sweetback (including Bill Cosby), while "The Premiere" (11 min.) offers interviews on the red carpet, and "American Cinematheque Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles" (32 min.) focuses on the director's feelings regarding both films. Also included is a still gallery for "Poster Explorations" and trailers for this and other Columbia TriStar titles. Keep-case.
—DSH



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