Melvin Van Peebles: Pioneering Director of New Black Cinema (Watermelon Man), Dies at 89

He directed the pioneering Watermelon Man, did everything on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and wrote Broadway musicals.

 

Van Peebles, the father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday night  in Manhattan.

“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read.

“His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the NY Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, on Broadway next year.”

Considered by many to be the godfather of modern Black cinema, Van Peebles was an influential link to a younger generation of African American filmmakers, such as Spike Lee and John Singleton.

The multi-talented Chicagoean also was a novelist, theater impresario, songwriter, musician and painter.

Van Peebles was living in Paris when the first feature he wrote and directed, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, attracted attention. Columbia Pictures asked him to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a racial satire that starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a bigoted white insurance salesman who goes to the bathroom in his suburban home in the middle of the night and discovers he’s Black.

After that movie’s success, Columbia offered Van Peebles three-picture deal but wanted no part of his next project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Helped by $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, he wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the renegade film while starring as its antihero, a ladies man with superhero lovemaking abilities who battles the corrupt white establishment in Los Angeles.

Van Peebles made Sweetback in 19 days for $500,000. It opened in only two venues, in Atlanta and Detroit, but strong word-of-mouth from working-class African Americans and  soundtrack of music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire, the picture raked in more than $10 million, making it the highest-grossing indie film in history at the time.

In a 1997 book about the movie, Mario notes that his father “was forced to self-finance, constantly on the brink of ruin, his crew got arrested and jailed, death threats, and yet [at first] he refused to submit his film to the all-white MPAA ratings board for approval. The film then received an X rating. My dad, true to form, printed T-shirts that read, ‘Rated X … By an All-White Jury,’ and made it part of his marketing campaign.”

The New York Times called Van Peebles “the first Black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game,” and Sweetback ushered in the blaxploitation era in Hollywood. (Before his film, Shaft was going to be about a white detective, Van Peebles said.)

After Sweetback, Van Peebles brought Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, his musical about Black urban life, to Broadway and received Tony nominations for best book and best original score in 1972. A year later, he received another nomination for Don’t Play Us Cheap!, centering on a devil who attempts to break up a party in Harlem. The two musicals garnered nine Tony noms in all.

Van Peebles also directed a 1973 film version of Don’t Play Us Cheap! as well as the action-comedy Identity Crisis (1989), which starred his son.

He helmed and appeared with Mario in Posse (1993), a Western about African-American soldiers who mutiny against their racist white officer, and contributed a song, “Cruel Jim Crow,” to that movie.

Van Peebles had a writing credit on the stock-car biopic Greased Lightning (1977), starring Richard Pryor, and adapted his novel about the growth of the Black Panther Party into a 1995 movie, Panther, that was directed by his son.

In 2003, he was portrayed by Mario in Baadasssss (2003), a son’s homage to his dad.

In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).

The son of a tailor, Melvin Peebles was born on August 21, 1932. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1953 in literature, served four years in the U.S. Air Force and married  German woman.

After his discharge, he worked as a portrait painter in Mexico, then moved to San Francisco, where he ran cable cars.

Van Peebles made three shorts, beginning with the slice-of-life Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957), which he hoped would serve as his calling card into the motion-picture industry. But when he was unable to find directorial work in L.A., he, his wife and their children, Megan and Mario, moved to Europe. In Holland, he studied with the Dutch National Theatre, did some acting and added the “Van” to his last name.

After his marriage dissolved, Van Peebles headed to Paris, where he authored novels and wrote and directed his first feature, La permission, an adaptation of his novel about a love affair between an African American soldier and a French woman. It won acclaim in Europe, was retitled The Story of a Three-Day Pass for U.S. audiences and chosen as the French entry for the San Francisco Film Fest in 1967.

It was well-received by critics and festivalgoers, but few knew that the director of Three-Day Pass was American and Black.

In 2014 Van Peebles said he insisted that the star of Watermelon Man be a Black actor (the character is only white in the first 20 minutes). “You think a white guy can play Black but a Black guy can’t play white?” he asked Columbia execs.

He also changed the ending of Herman Raucher’s original script, which has the bigot waking up from a nightmare and back as a white guy. “Being Black is not going to be bad dream,” he said. Van Peebles did promise the producers that he would film the original ending as well, giving them a choice, but then “forgot” to do that.

A close-up of Cambridge’s butt is the first sign that informs the audience that something strange has happened to Jeff Gerber overnight.

Van Peebles also did the music for the movie and appears in a cameo as a sign painter when Gerber opens his own business.

To get the owners of the Detroit theater to open Sweetback, Van Peebles bet them a new suit, certain that his film would bring in more money than the movie they had at the time. He won.

Before screening the film in April 2018 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Van Peebles said, “I haven’t had this much fun with clothes on in many years.”

Van Peebles was in such films as Robert Atman’s O.C. and Stiggs (1985), Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), Hebrew Hammer (2003) and Peeples (2013).

On television, he starred with Mario on the short-lived NBC comedy Sonny Spoon and appeared on All My ChildrenIn the Heat of the NightLiving Single and Girlfriends.

Van Peebles won a Daytime Emmy and a Humanitas Prize in 1987 for writing an episode of a CBS Schoolbreak Special, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Books.” He also was the author of Bold Money, a 1986 primer on how to trade stock options.

Black Images Matter

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario said. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”