A cinematic fusillade melding gonzo humor and guerrilla filmmaking tactics, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is at once an intellectual enterprise and a communal rallying cry. The opening credits claim “The Black Community” as the film’s star, a gesture of egalitarianism that rebukes the auteurist Kool-Aid of the 1970s. Nevertheless, Van Peebles, as writer, director, and star, can’t help but emerge as the film’s true auteur, having worked piecemeal with a sporadic shooting schedule and a shrinking budget to craft the finished product. That process is thrillingly represented in Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles’s biopic about the film’s production and its subsequent embrace by the Black Panthers, yet it doesn’t quite convey the wildness of his father’s film; over 40 years after its release, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song still retains its shock value, but even more so, it remains distinct as a work that cannot be squarely placed within a singular category.
Among the film’s aforementioned shock elements, none is more startling than the opening sequence in which young Sweetback (Mario Van Peebles), who lives in a brothel, has sex with a prostitute. It’s a blatant act of child rape, yet Van Peebles constructs it as a moment of masculine realization, busting through the potential trauma of the encounter to find the ecstasy that Sweetback’s apparently large penis brings to women. The film, from its dismissive treatment of women to the casual homophobia that accompanies several of Sweetback’s encounters, doesn’t give a shit about political correctness. It strives emphatically, however, to offer an uncompromising dramatization of a police force that treats beating black male bodies as sport.
Van Peebles turns the form of his film’s exploitation elements into a political weapon that shares, for example, Kenneth Anger’s irreverence for narrative clarity that comes at the expense of visual metaphor. Take the psychedelic approach to montage that’s evident throughout sequences of Sweetback running that suddenly become hallucinatory, monochromatic canvases of neon colors. The effects are no mere flourishes, but expressions of Sweetback’s psychological distance from the desert spaces that appear simultaneously wide open and enclosed. By making Sweetback an orphan turned wandering outlaw, Van Peebles conveys his perception of the black experience in America: perpetually abused, displaced, and on the run.
Inclined toward cerebral editing as it is, the film remains grounded by strategically utilizing explicit instances of police brutality. That includes a pair of white L.A.P.D. cops mercilessly beating Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), a young member of the Black Panthers, and even more extreme, the murder of a black man who police think is Sweetback, which is a moment that’s brushed off by a police officer with a “so what?” when he’s told that the deceased man isn’t Sweetback. In 1971, lacking the ability to document corruption in the moment, black audiences and social activists undoubtedly recognized the film as liberating by offering the demonstrable evidence of police brutality.
A critical misconception about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is its categorical identification as blaxploitation. Because the film was released the same year as Gordon Parks’s Shaft, critics and scholars have tended to evaluate both films as being cut from the same cloth. Their superficial similarities—retaliation plots, powerful black male leads—belie both the differences in their production histories and their formal compositions. Shaft was co-produced and distributed by MGM; Van Peebles had to personally ask Bill Cosby for a $50,000 loan just to finish Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, much less consider how the film would eventually circulate.
Moreover, Van Peebles’s carnivalesque filmmaking techniques and proclivity for antisocial characters carve out a kinship with subversive filmmakers from across the globe, including Luis Buñuel, Dušan Makavejev, and Dijbril Diop Mambéty. The film’s inventive approach to narrative and unsparing depiction of social discord should thusly be among the essential elements that help determine the greater extent of its legacy.
Vinegar Syndrome has done everything within its power to make this 4K transfer the definitive version of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A pre-feature card acknowledges that there are some sections of the film’s existing source materials which are damaged beyond complete repair. Fortunately, those instances are few and far between, totaling only a few minutes of the film’s entire running time. The remainder of the restoration is a revelation, with superb color saturation and image clarity throughout. Scenes featuring ample amounts of neon are especially remarkable. The monaural DTS-HD track is serviceable and full, blaring Earth, Wind & Fire’s music where appropriate and mixing in dialogue without overcompensating for the original mix’s minor shortcomings by inflating its volume.
The disc packs a wallop, with the greatest asset being an extensive Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles following a screening in 2013 of the film at the Maysles Center in Harlem. Van Peebles addresses how the Black Panthers made the film a success, why he doesn’t comment publicly on contemporary black filmmakers, and how his upbringing bestowed a fearlessness in him that he tried to bring to his filmmaking. It’s an added bonus whenever the camera pans to the audience, which reveals Albert Maysles sitting, and grinning, near the front row. A more general career interview with Van Peebles mostly covers the struggles he had at Paramount with The Watermelon Man in the late ’60s before addressing the production of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. A making-of documentary contains footage of Van Peebles walking through Paris while recalling his experiences during production. Elsewhere, actress Niva Ruschell discusses how making the film affected her career. A feature-length commentary with film historian Sergio Mims is worth a listen, primarily because Mims provides a change of pace from more typical, objective approaches to historical commentaries by discussing his own relationship with the film over the years. Also included are an archival still gallery, a trailer, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Travis Crawford.
Vinegar Syndrome’s sterling Blu-ray of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song will satisfy any cinephile who’s been awaiting the definitive restoration and release of this cult classic.