“You Bled My Momma. You Bled My Poppa. But You Wont Bleed Me.” This was one of many ad quotes celebrating the politics and box office perseverance of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song in 1971. Shortly before Columbia’s Watermelon Man (“The Uppity Movie”) hit the big screen, Melvin was asked by a Hollywood suit to deliver a comedy for his next project. With a three-picture deal within reach, Melvin decided he wasn’t going to play nice for the Man. Instead, he played honest, creating a film outside the studio system—by black people, for black people, about black people. Some 33 years after the release of the film, his son Mario Van Peebles writes, directs, and stars (yeah, that’s right: like father, like son) in BAADASSS! (a.k.a. Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadassss!), a deeply personal tribute to the man who almost single-handedly changed the way black Americans were represented in film.
BAADASSSSS! is a celebration of Melvin’s struggle to make Baadassss Song on his own terms despite an endless string of financial and personal mishaps. Playing Melvin in the film, Mario taps into the madness that drove his father to re-politicize the way blacks were consumed on screen. Mario’s performance is a remarkable one, and it’s all over the way he mimics Melvin’s cock-of-the-walk; though Mario is clearly in awe of his father’s success, he understands that some of that madness was self-hatred disguised as narcissism. The über-documentary interviews definitely messes with the narrative groove of the film, and though Mario’s surrealistic flourishes are awkward at best (in a Lynchian blue room, the past and present freely intersect), the many schizoid interludes (rainbow-streaked mainlines between reality and wish-fulfillment) suggest that Baadassss Song was a kind of personal exorcism for Melvin.
According to Mario’s film, Baadassss Song was born from a fever dream his father had in the desert. We’re meant to think of Easy Rider as Melvin and young Mario (Khelo Thomas) ride through the desert landscape: that image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper blasting their way through America with nothing on their minds but fucking and getting high. Released in 1969, Hopper’s film is never mentioned in BAADASSSSS!, but its specter is still there—in the red-white-and-blue helmet Melvin wears on his head, right down to the way he cradles his prized bike. Mario means to distort an image of white identification. These images aren’t about two white guys on motorcycles aimlessly looking for America; it’s about a black man and his son passionately and desperately looking to reinvent the same place, possibly even own it.
“Good things do not come to those who wait,” declares producer Jerry Gross (Vincent Schiavelli) during the film’s opener, a platitude Melvin lives by and is seemingly willing to die for. It’s a mantra that could also apply to his relationship to his son. There’s something meta about Mario playing Melvin and acknowledging all the hurt exchanged between the two during the making of Baadassss Song. Against all odds, Melvin made his movie, and though his near-silent relationship to his son bordered on the grotesque (he cast him as a younger version of himself in his film, where he loses his virginity to a loose woman), you get a sense throughout BAADASSSS that Mario understands that in order for Melvin and Mario to identify themselves as Dad and Son, Baadassss Song needed to be made. In forcing that film to happen, not only did Melvin get to offer something real to the black community, but he also perpetuated a real connection to his son. That’s honesty.