Film Review: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Release Date: April 23rd, 1971
Directed by: Melvin Van Peebles
Written by: Melvin Van Peebles
Music by: Melvin Van Peebles
Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles

Yeah Inc., Cinemation Industries, 97 Minutes

Review:

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song has done something that is very rare; it made me uncomfortable.

Now I have watched all sorts of movies, including some of the most messed up shit ever filmed. That being said, it is extremely rare for something to make my skin crawl. The opening scene of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song did just that. Seeing a nude 13 year-old Mario Van Peebles climb on top of a nude adult prostitute and being instructed by her to get moving was awkward as hell. Being that he is a minor laying on top of an adult and that the director behind the action is his real life father, is even stranger.

Moving beyond that, this proto-blaxploitation flick was pretty smut heavy. That’s not necessarily a negative but it only seemed to serve the purpose of allowing the director, also the film’s star, to be seen getting nasty with as many women as possible without making the film into a really bad homemade porn. Plus, his entire persona and nickname surround the fact that he has a monstrous penis. These aspects of the film make it come off as vain and make it hard to take the film’s message seriously.

What is the film’s message?

Well, it is the first of its kind, as far as I know. It isn’t a traditional blaxploitation movie but it set the stage for that genre. Essentially, it sees “the man” treat blacks like shit and the film’s self-titled hero fights back, as he should, given the circumstances of the abuse committed against him. Where this differs from the blaxploitation formula, is that it lacks the humor and the black superhero feel. Also, it doesn’t end positively for the hero and justice is never really served.

The film’s message did resonate, however. The Black Panther Party loved the film and considered it required viewing for their members. It also had an effect on white people, who, for probably the first time, saw a cinematic portrayal of the plight of African Americans from their point-of-view. Whether you love the film or not, it is a pivotal motion picture in American culture and it opened doors for other blacks to tell their versions of the same general story.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is far from a perfect film, it really isn’t even that good, from this reviewer’s perspective. The fact that it feels just as much self-serving for the director, writer, musician and star as it tries to showcase many of the atrocities committed against blacks, hurts the film. Where the character of Sweetback was a pimp, Melvin Van Peebles, the man that played him, was also his own pimp, trying to pimp out an image of him being a bad ass sexual tyrannosaur.

All negative critiques aside, it is still a film that should be experienced because of what it represents at its core and how it laid the groundwork for an entirely new genre of filmmaking in the 1970s.

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