Obituary of Melvin Van Peebles | Movie

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In his own words, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who died at the age of 89, was “the Rosa Parks of the industry”. He was one of the few African-American directors to enter the Hollywood studio system when, in 1970, Columbia awarded him a three-film contract. But Columbia balked at the incendiary plot of its next project, about a black con artist who kills white cops and escapes unharmed, so Van Peebles borrowed $ 50,000 from actor Bill Cosby, raised 150,000 $ extra and started an independent production as a writer. , director, producer, editor, composer and main actor.

Shot in guerrilla style for 19 days, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was a huge commercial success and effectively kicked off the genre of blaxploitation, which offered black actors an unprecedented array of lead roles. However, Van Peebles was ambivalent about the genre, as he felt he often put aside the political motivations of his own film. It was retaliation against Hollywood’s default black characterization modes: silent submission or the majestic mold of Sidney Poitier. The opening sequence lists the main stars as “the black community”.

In the first scene, a boy loses his virginity to a sex worker. The Child is Sweetback – played as an adult in the rest of the Van Peebles film, and in that prelude by Van Peebles’ 13-year-old son, Mario. (Over 30 years later, Mario directed Baadasssss !, on the making of his father’s classic, with Mario playing Melvin.) Melvin took on the role of Sweetback in his own film because he claimed that no actor was only interested in a character who speaks barely a dozen words (mostly swear words) and makes a living performing sex acts.

Melvin Van Peebles at the Deauville American Film Festival 2012 in Deauville, France. Photography: François Durand / WireImage

When Sweetback witnesses a black man being assaulted by racist white cops, he attacks them and runs away. The film’s most enduring images are of Van Peebles running, sporting golden flares, a puffy black shirt, and a drooping mustache. The sequences are visually and sonically inventive: there are stills, psychedelic colors, superimposed images and a haunting stream of jazz-funk.

When Van Peebles came to promote the film, he provided radio stations with his own contagious musical composition. The score for the film, performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, was released by Stax Records. When the film was given a prohibitive X rating, Van Peebles printed “Rated X by a all white jury” t-shirts, garnered local support, had the film screened in community theaters and venues makeshift, and practically pushed it into theaters. .

He had learned the art of bustling from his father, a tailor who ran a shop on the South Side of Chicago, where Melvin, the son of Marion and Edwin Peebles, was born. (Melvin added “Van” to his name when he moved to Holland in his late twenties.) By the age of 10, he was working at the cash register in his father’s shop and selling old clothes. in the street. He attended Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill., And graduated in English from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953.

He joined the US Air Force, served as a navigator and bomber in Strategic Air Command, and married a German photographer, Maria Marx, with whom he had two sons, Mario and Max, and a daughter, Megan. A period spent working in San Francisco as a cable car operator inspired him to write the book The Big Heart (1957). He also paints and, drawing inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s collection of essays, Film Form, takes up the basics of cinema.

After making a series of short films, he moved to Holland, where he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. Then he moved to Paris and contributed comics to the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri. He has written a handful of novels in French, including La Permission. His cinema was encouraged by Henri Langlois of the Cin̩math̬que fran̤aise, who had screened his short films, and Van Peebles decided to adapt La Permission for his first feature film, a French production published under the title The story of a leave Рthree days pass (1968).

Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three-Day Pass, 1968, a candid account of rank and race in the military which was the first feature film directed by Melvin Van Peebles.
Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three-Day Pass, 1968, a candid account of rank and race in the military which was the first feature film directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Photography: RP

A candid account of rank and race in the military, the film follows a black soldier stationed in France who receives a promotion and is given some time before taking up his new post. Driven by the idea that he has become “Uncle Tom” of his white captain, he embarks for Paris. Van Peebles photographed the cafes and stalls of the Left Bank in freewheeling documentary style. The soldier meets and dances with a white girl and arranges to spend the next day with her by the beach. There, they are spotted by three white men from the base; shocked to see the interracial couple, they report to the captain, who quickly demotes the soldier.

The film, punctuated by bursts of jazzy music, has more than a thrill of the French New Wave, a touch of the absurd, and the jaded humor and irony of the blues. In one of the most powerful sequences, the couple awkwardly check in at a hotel and have sex in a disarming montage incorporating war imagery, chorus, and racing demos. The film won an award at the San Francisco Film Festival where, Van Peebles recalls with some amusement, they were surprised to find that the Dutch-sounding director of this French production was an African-American. He was then hired to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a provocative comedy written by Herman Raucher about a racist white salesman, Jeff, who wakes up one morning to find his skin turned black.

The producers wanted to cast a white actor who would then appear in blackface after the transformation, but Van Peebles won the case for using a black star (Godfrey Cambridge) who would then be made up in “whiteface”. He also edited the movie’s original ending, in which the salesman woke up to find it had all been a bad dream; Van Peebles did not want to equate African American life with a nightmare.

Although the film was made with some of its trademark experimental flourishes – including color filters – it is essentially a wide-ranging domestic comedy, well performed by Cambridge and Estelle Parsons as his suffering wife. for a long time, Althea.

Melvin Van Peebles, right, with his son Mario, who he sometimes worked with, in 1994.
Melvin Van Peebles, right, with his son Mario, who he sometimes worked with, in 1994. Photograph: Jim Wilson / New York Times / Redux / eyevine

After the transformation, Jeff is greeted with cries of fear, open suspicion, and hostility. If the film played America’s Inequalities for a laugh, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was directed in anger and defiance. Although he proved Van Peebles’ influence at the box office – Sweetback made over $ 10 million in 1971 – it caused him to lose his contract with Columbia and earned him a reputation for volatile talent.

By this time, Van Peebles had achieved success as a musician, for his albums of original proto-rap material, including Brer Soul (1968). He then turned to Broadway, writing the music, book, and lyrics for a ‘ghetto life’ musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which began in October 1971 and lasted more than nine months. Before it closed, it opened another Broadway musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap! His book received a Tony nomination and a film version was released in 1972. In 1974 he released a new album, What the… You Mean I Can’t Sing ?, the title reflecting his gruff humor and a progression in his music. vocal delivery of spoken words on previous versions.

Ten years passed before he released another album or another movie, but Van Peebles took care of the theater. An autobiographical picaresque musical, Waltz of the Stork, opened in New York City in 1982, starring him, and a few years later, he directed a revamped puppet version of the show. The material was recycled into a 2008 film, Confessions of a Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha, and a graphic novel.

By 1983, Van Peebles had developed his most unexpected role to date, moving from Broadway to Wall Street and becoming a trader on the floor of the US Stock Exchange. In 1986, he wrote a book for aspiring investors, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.

During this time, he returned to the cinema. He played a role in Robert Altman’s OC and Stiggs (1985) and appeared with Mario in Jaws: The Revenge (1987), the Sonny Spoon television series, and the predominantly African-American western Posse (1993), which Mario has executed.

A scene from the 1995 film Panther, adapted from a novel by Melvin Van Peebles, and directed by his son Mario.
A scene from the 1995 film Panther, adapted from a novel by Melvin Van Peebles, and directed by his son Mario. Photography: The Kobal Collection

In 1971, Huey Newton praised Sweet Sweetback’s song Baadasssss and made it compulsory for the Black Panthers. In 1995, Van Peebles adapted his own novel about the formation of Newton’s Radical Party for the film Panther, directed by Mario. The following year, they directed Gang in Blue, on racism within the police.

In 1998, Van Peebles wrote and narrated the documentary Classified X, a look at black characters in American cinema. Systematically dubbed the godfather of black cinema – although he preferred “the godfather of independent cinema” – he appeared more and more in documentaries, usually wearing his round glasses and his trademark beret, chewing a cigar. His projects became riffs on past accomplishments: he and Mario published a book about collaboration, No Identity Crisis (1990), and appeared in The Hebrew Hammer (2003), an irreverent Jewish version of blaxploitation.

He directed another French production, Le Conte du Ventre Plein (Bellyful, 2000), released shortly after being named Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He also launched a musical version of Sweetback in France in 2010.

Her son Mario gave her small roles in Redemption Road (2010), We the Party (2012) and Armed (2018), and he also appeared in Tina Gordon’s family comedy Peeples (2013).

His marriage to Maria ended in divorce in 2018. Megan died in 2006. He is survived by Mario and Max, another daughter, Marguerite, and 11 grandchildren.

Melvin Van Peebles (Melvin Peebles), filmmaker, novelist and musician, born August 21, 1932; passed away on September 21, 2021

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