Cinema history boasts some intriguing parent/child collaborations. Elia Kazan tapped his gifted son Nicholas to write the anti-Vietnam War film The Visitors (1972). Elaine May cast her daughter Jeannie Berlin in an indelibly grotesque role in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). But no one has gone quite so far as Mario Van Peebles in Baadasssss!.
The film is a tribute to Mario’s father, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (those with eagle eyes would have spotted them together on the red carpet at the 2005 Academy Awards). Melvin made a classic of radical cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in 1971. His son’s film recreates the hilariously fraught conditions of Sweetback’s making. When shown at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2004, it bore the funkier title of Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss!.
Sweetback is primarily celebrated today as a forerunner to the cycle of wildly successful blaxploitation movies including Shaft (1971) and Foxy Brown (1974) – raw, invigorating genre films with a Black Pride message. But Melvin Van Peebles’ political line was harder, and his filmmaking style had more in common with experimental cinema of the 1960s than Hollywood B-level entertainment. All the way up to Bellyful (2000) and beyond, his films have remained deliberately disconcerting collages of drama, satire and “visionary cinema” techniques.
Mario Van Peebles is a more controlled, mainstream filmmaker than his wild Dad. (His best film, Panther  co-written by Melvin, is also his most daring.) At moments his depiction of how Melvin would keep shooting no matter what catastrophe was unfolding, and with any means to hand, recalls the portrait of a deranged amateur in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). And perhaps there is a little too much starstruck emphasis on the celebrities who crossed Melvin’s path, like Bill Cosby (played by T. K. Carter) and the band Earth, Wind & Fire.
Despite all the affectionate recounting of problems on the set and the feel-good celebration of the black community pulling together to make Sweetback a success, there is a curious father/son struggle at the heart of Baadassss!. Mario takes the part of his father, and also directs a representation of himself as a boy. The film details, with some intensity, the grief Melvin caused his partner, Sandra (Nia Long), and the supposed trauma through which Dad put his son by including him in a (mild) sex scene for his movie.
Made for television, Baadasssss! veers from some weakly naturalistic scenes – like the documentary about Terry Gilliam, Lost in La Mancha (2002), it tends to exaggerate the banal, logistical difficulties of filmmaking into major melodrama – to strenuous attempts to jazz up proceedings with rapid montages and fantasy inserts.
there is no doubting the instructive fun of this glimpse into independent
filmmaking of the early 1970s. And don’t check out until you see the silent,
stony visage of Van Peebles Snr in the final frames.
MORE Van Peebles jnr.: Posse
© Adrian Martin March 2005