When Melvin Van Peebles died at the age of 91 only weeks before the release of the Criterion Collection’s new box set celebrating his most influential films, he left behind an astonishing legacy as a true innovator. Van Peebles was that rare talent like Charlie Chaplin or Satyajit Ray whose dizzying multi-hyphenate skills force even those who are the most skeptical of the auteur theory to admit that at least some artists truly do shape a considerable portion of their work in a collaborative medium. Criterion’s set collects the first four of Van Peebles’s eight features, and the stylistic range on display across a five-year period showcases one of the most brilliant American filmmakers of his time.
Like many black artists struggling with lack of opportunity in his homeland, Van Peebles moved to Paris in the 1960s, and his debut feature, 1967’s The Story of a Three-Day Pass, is informed both by the experience of this self-exile and the cinema of the French New Wave. Adapting his own novel La Permission, Van Peebles follows Turner (Harry Baird), an African American soldier stationed in France who heads to Paris on a weekend pass and meets Miriam (Nicole Berger), a white woman to whom he feels an instant attraction. In a dreamy fantasy, the other patrons of the nightclub where Turner first spots Miriam clear a path in the dancefloor as he walks toward her in slow motion and immediately wins her over. In the real world, though, Turner is so scared of the possible reprisals of courting a white woman that he keeps her at literal arm’s length when first dancing with her, only gradually coming closer.
Van Peebles fills the film with the kind of playful visual and aural gimmicks that had been popularized by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Split shots place Turner in arguments with his own reflection in the mirror, who accuses the man of being a sellout to his white superior officer, while jump cuts reflect his eroticized passion toward Miriam, especially in a scene of the two taking a drive where insert shots of the woman playfully yanking the hem of her skirt over her knee are set to sudden bursts of frenzied rock ‘n’ roll.
Yet as exuberant as The Story of a Three-Day Pass is in capturing Turner’s experience of being able to cut loose and experience the full range of his emotions, there are constant reminders that Europeans aren’t necessarily more enlightened than Americans, as when a Spanish man insults Turner and not even a language barrier can prevent the soldier from knowing when a slur has been thrown his way, prompting fisticuffs and an anguished cry of “Je suis homme! I am a person!” Yet Van Peebles never gives into despair, and despite a narratively somber ending, the film concludes with Turner laughing in the face of the structures that bind him, having at least retained a shred of the freedom he felt for one long weekend.
Compared to the ecstatic, Euro-art formal play of his debut, Van Peebles’s one and only Hollywood-backed venture, 1970’s Watermelon Man, is an antic farce that plays in the sandbox of the dying studio era of the ’60s and the language of early sitcom television. A racialized take on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the film concerns smarmy liberal racist Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) waking up one morning to discover that he’s become a black man. By playing up tacky suburban aesthetics (interiors bring to mind the pages of a Sears catalog) and the exaggerated cadences of speech on shows like The Honeymooners, the film conjures an absurd sense normalcy that it then proceeds to demolish. As Jeff’s initial shock gives way to sarcasm at facing prejudice, the dialogue becomes razor-sharp with barbs. Gradually, Van Peebles turns stereotypical images of postwar bourgeois prosperity against themselves, leading to a denouement that feels oddly empowering in its total alienation from the status quo.
The centerpiece of Criterion’s set is Van Peebles’s undisputed masterpiece, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Spitting in the face of trendy, politically correct attempts to make black people appealing to respectable liberal audiences, the film is a furious, heightened document of a neglected underclass. Van Peebles plays the taciturn protagonist, an orphan shellshocked by the War on Poverty who finds himself on the run after he beats two white LAPD officers for assaulting a Black Panther. Twisting the Nouvelle Vague cool of his debut toward a grimier tone, the filmmaker resuscitates many of his most elaborate editing and in-camera tricks to add momentum to Sweetback’s struggle against the police.
At first glance, the film fits comfortably within the parameters of blaxploitation, featuring a boisterous funk soundtrack from Earth Wind & Fire and pitting Sweetback against a white establishment that’s hellbent on ensuring that black communities remain disadvantaged. Sweetback is also coded in hyper-masculine tropes of virility, and he’s so well endowed that in one scene his member literally becomes a means of diffusing conflict with a chapter of Hells Angels captained by a woman. But compared to the underlying affirmations and populist appeal of, say, Gordon Parks’s Shaft, Van Peebles’s film roils with unfiltered rage, dispensing with the humor of the director’s prior features that acted as a release valve for their thematic tensions. There is no real catharsis in the film’s escalating violence, and in truth it has less in common with its exploitation peers than excoriating novels like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son, a scream from a nearly mute man demanding to be heard.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song can be seen as the logical conclusion to the tensions that Van Peebles had explored less explosively in his earlier work, but he took a complete about-face with 1973’s musical Don’t Play Us Cheap. Based on his own novel that he had turned into a Tony-nominated stage musical, the film is a whimsical, folkloric account of two demonic imps, Trinity (Joseph Keyes) and Dave (Avon Long), attempting to break up a house party in Harlem for their own amusement, only to be swept up in the guests’ libidinous energy.
Dave sees this coming, warning his compatriot that “when black people have a party, they don’t play. They’re serious.” The demons attempt to derail the party by breaking records and hogging all the alcohol, but the other guests all have ways to overcome these setbacks. All the while, Van Peebles captures these antics using jump cuts and disorienting rhythms, but just as often he employs long takes and unobtrusive movements to spotlight the performers and their musical talents. The narrative is comical, but underneath is an obvious theme of black perseverance in the face of adversity, ending the set on an affirming note.
All four films in the Criterion Collection’s set received 4K restorations approved by Melvin Van Peebles, and the rough, low-budget features will likely never look better. The Story of a Three-Day Pass’s monochrome images look boast exceptional contrast, while the lavish colors of Watermelon Man and Don’t Play Us Cheap practically pop off the screen. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song retains its inherently raw, low-budget look, but that doesn’t preclude the transfer from offering up crystal-clear images, even in on-location nighttime shots that sport clear black levels that prevent the actors from being washed out in inky murk. Three of the films have simple, cleanly separated mono tracks, while Don’t Play Us Cheap has a 5.1 surround mix that gives its musical numbers an enveloping atmosphere that only deepens the film’s warmth. There are no audible flaws in any soundtrack.
Even by the standards of Criterion’s recent, ludicrously stuffed mega-box sets, the label goes above and beyond with the extras on offer here. The two most considerable features here are two feature-length movies: Baadasssss!, the 2003 dramatized biography by Van Peebles’s son, Mario, about his father’s struggles to make his most enduring film, and Joe Angio’s documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which covers the director’s life and work. The set also comes with three of Van Peebles’s early short films: Sunlight, Three Pickup Men for Herrick, and Les cinq cent balles.
Among the other extras are a 1997 commentary track by Van Peebles for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, interviews with the director (ranging from French television appearances in the 1960s all the way up to new talks conducted not long before his death for this release), and archival episodes of the public broadcasting show Black Journal devoted to each of the films in the set. There are also extras related to Mario Van Peebles’s included film, and new discussions about Van Peebles’s legacy with critics like Nelson George and scholars such as Amy Abugo Ongiri. An accompanying booklet features essays on each film from various critics.
The Criterion Collection adds to their impressive recent spate of multi-film box sets with a loaded showcase for a great and lesser-known American maverick.
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