“This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” declare the opening titles of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. When it was released, 50 years ago this month, that was a lot of them. Melvin Van Peebles’s landmark movie arrived at a time when the civil rights movement had barely translated into tangible progress, and was even in danger of being rolled back, what with the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and so many others. The Brothers and Sisters had also had enough of the Man’s movies: the only African American representation Hollywood permitted were characters who were either subservient to white folks or super-exemplary, such as Sidney Poitier.
Sweetback was neither. Over the course of the movie he breaks all the taboos: he is sexually potent, he defers to no one, he kills racist cops, he supports black revolutionaries, he even sleeps with a white woman. And he survives! No wonder the Black Panthers got behind the movie. It became one of the highest-grossing films of 1971 in the US, despite also being one of the worst-made.
Van Peebles at least had excuses for that: he did practically everything himself. He cobbled together the finances (apart from a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby); he wrote, directed, starred, edited, performed the stunts, and composed the score (with Earth, Wind & Fire); then promoted it himself. As such, despite some avant-garde flourishes, Sweetback is pretty crude and messy to watch. Van Peebles, a well-educated polymath who had lived in Paris, was no amateur, but the execution couldn’t live up to the ambition. The story of Sweetback’s guerrilla making is arguably more entertaining than the movie itself. Indeed, Van Peebles’s son Mario told it in his 2003 movie Baadasssss!, in which he played his dad.
Sweetback is often credited as the first “blaxploitation” movie but it doesn’t really fit the description. It paved the way: legend has it that Shaft (released the same year, by a mainstream studio) changed its hero from white to black as a result of it. And it could certainly be seen as exploitative – of children (13-year-old Mario played the young Sweetback in a sex scene that the BFI reissue of the film had to censor under the Protection of Children Act) and women (most of whom appear naked and in awe of Sweetback’s sexual prowess). But it put artistic and commercial power in the hands of black film-makers for the first time, which is the opposite of exploitation.
Van Peebles preferred to call it “the first Black Power movie”. He opened the door for not only black cinema (Spike Lee would follow in his DIY footsteps with She’s Gotta Have It), but independent cinema in general. Despite its lo-fi scrappiness, Sweetback remains radical. It really did stick it to the Man.