”Man, when I showed up it was freak city,” rasps Melvin Van Peebles, chomping on a stogie fat enough to choke a rhino. Lounging in his Manhattan office, the godfather of African-American indie cinema is recounting his brash beginnings with typical badass aplomb. When he submitted his first feature, The Story of a Three Day Pass, to the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival as a French entry, the jury didn’t know he was American, let alone black, says Van Peebles. ”Up to that time, there’d never been a black director in the mainstream.” Now 64, the lens-toting griot is enjoying a revival of his films, with the video debuts of Three Day Pass and Don’t Play Us Cheap and a rerelease of his long-unavailable Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (all from Xenon Home Video). ”Melvin lit the way for independent black cinema,” says Tales From the Hood director Rusty Cundieff. ”Without Melvin, a lot of us wouldn’t be around.”
Van Peebles first found success as a writer in Paris, where he penned four novels between 1964 and 1967. The Chicago native and former Air Force bombardier had been invited by the Cinematheque Francais after three shorts he’d made were well received. Hollywood, Van Peebles says, was embarrassed by the popularity of Three Day Pass, an interracial romance (adapted from his novel La Permission). ”They were making liberal films like Home of the Brave, which were crying about the ‘color problem,’ but none of them cried enough to allow us to tell our own stories.” When the studios came courting, he resisted. ”I didn’t take a job right away because if I did, they would’ve had the only black threat ‘under wraps,”’ he says. ”That forced them to hire others, like Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis.” Van Peebles says he signed with Columbia to direct 1970’s Watermelon Man, a comedy about a white bigot who wakes up black, only after making the all-white union employ black apprentices.
Next came 1971’s controversial Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the searing elegy of a black man who fights back against police brutality; rated X, it opens with Van Peebles’ then-10-year-old son Mario in an explicit sex scene. Instead of the once-typical desexualized, thoroughly integrated brother, the hero (Van Peebles) brought a prurient machismo and power-to-the-people fervor to the big screen, spawning a generation of blaxploitation supermen. But Sweetback‘s script left a sour taste in the mouths of Columbia execs, and they canceled his contract. ”I was pleased because I ended up owning the film,” says Van Peebles, who raised the $500,000 budget himself. Sweetback eventually took in $10 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing independent films of its day.
After writing two Broadway shows, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap (which he filmed in 1973), Van Peebles made a brief foray in the mid-’80s into the American Stock Exchange, becoming its only black trader. More recently, he wrote, produced, and acted in 1995’s Panther (directed by Mario), cocreated the Showtime movie Gang in Blue, and can be seen as rebel leader Asher in the new-to-video postapocalyptic actioner Fist of the North Star.
But whether fighting on screen or in real life, Van Peebles loves to stoke his bad-boy persona, boasting that a tattoo on his rear reads, ”Go ahead, try it if you can, muthaf—a.” ”I did it so every day my black ass would see [it],” he says. ”So I’d never forget what I was up against.”