Van Peebles, Melvin: Profile of Indie Director

Melvin Van Peebles, one of the “Godfathers” of independent film and modern black cinema, has also distinguished himself in an impressive list of other aspects of the entertainment industry–as a director, producer, writer, and composer.  From music (a three-time Grammy nominee) to television (an Emmy-award winner), to Broadway as a writer and director (eleven Tony nominations), and after 35 years his blockbuster movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” remains on Variety’s list of all-time top grossing films.


After graduation from college he was a member of the Strategic Air Command with the U.S. Air Force, lived in Mexico where he worked as a painter, made his first three short films while driving a cable car in San Francisco, studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam in Holland, and lived in Paris, where he first earned his living as a street singer.  Then after teaching himself French, he worked as a journalist.  He adapted Chester Himes’ writings as an ongoing cartoon series for the legendary French satirical magazine “Hari Kiri”.  He published five novels in French, one of which became the basis of his first feature, a French film entitled, “La Permission” (The Story of a Three Day Pass), which incidentally won the Critic’s Choice Award at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival.


Upon returning to the U.S., Van Peebles directed the comedy “Watermelon Man” for Columbia Pictures, thus becoming the first black director to shoot a film in Hollywood.  He used the money he earned from this project to finance “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” , a film which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. 


“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was the first film of its kind, combining street sensibility, avant-garde imagery and Black political militancy.  “Sweetback” was considered controversial and revolutionary, both in its political and sexual content.  Many of his editing, music, and marketing techniques have been absorbed into mainstream Hollywood film business, it is now considered a seminal work in American cinema.


After working in three vastly different styles of filmmaking (European art, American studio, and Independent) Van Peebles moved on to other interests.  He wrote and composed two Tony Award-nominated Broadway musicals, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap”, which led to the growing Black presence on Broadway.


In television, Van Peebles wrote the screenplays for a CBS TV movie pilot “Just an Old Sweet Song” (1976) followed by the sequel entitled “Down Home”.  He wrote and acted in “Sophisticated Gents” based on the John Williams novel, he also and wrote “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book”, an after school special which earned him an Emmy.


In the 1980s he became involved with Wall Street, enjoying considerable success.  He was the first black trader on the American Stock Exchange and in 1986 he wrote a self-help primer “Bold Money” which became a best-seller in the financial arena.


As a recording artist, Van Peebles received a NAACP Award for the score of his movie “Watermelon Man”, plus two Grammy nominations for the score of “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”.  He was instrumental in launching the career of the band Earth, Wind & Fire, when he decided to have the then unknown band perform the music to “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”.


Van Peebles, born in Chicago, August 21, 1932, began his career as a 10 year old selling second-hand clothes to winos, since then he has been involved with Boy Scouts, Youth for Christ, The Merchant Marine and The Strategic Air Command, plus Cable cars, the Post office, Het Nederlands Comedie, Astronomy, The Cinémath?que Française, The Harkness Ballet, the ACLU, Boston Marathons, the Hood, Hollywood and various police… Senegalese, Mexican, Texan, etc. Recently, Van Peebles was awarded the prestigious French Legion of Honor.


Currently, he is starring in his Off-Broadway show   “Unmitigated Truth” (Life, a Lavatory, Loves & Ladies).  His latest endeavors are his feature film and graphic novel “Confessions Of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Foot, both of which will be released in August.