Rated R because Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was X Rated. The movie is about this movie that pushed all of the boundaries. Mario Van Peebles's biopic about the making of that movie is more tame, but that doesn't mean that it is family friendly. There's nudity all throughout, often in the context of sexuality. But there's language pervading the film. Just because something is more tame in contrast, doesn't make it tame. Rated R.
DIRECTOR: Mario Van Peebles
It's so unfair that I have so many criticism of this movie. This is perhaps one of the most personal movies I've seen in a while and it drops the ball so hard that I just get a little depressed thinking about it. For those who don't know about Baadasssss!, it's a biopic for Mario Van Peebles's father's film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I didn't love that movie either, but it wasn't made for me at all. I treat it as a fascinating historical piece of Civil Rights History because of its influence on the Black Panther movement. But I also think of this movie as a movie that is partially a crime for what it did to Mario Van Peebles. I have a lot of thoughts on my blog entry for Sweet Sweetback, so if you want a deeper dive after this is all said and done, you have that resource at your disposal.
The Van Peebles name actually showed up for me in high school in a movie I didn't care for, Highlander: The Final Dimension. I used to be a big Highlander fan, despite the fact that the movies may be kind of unwatchable for me now. But Highlander 3 starred Mario Van Peebles as the villain of the piece. Already, I have a weird connection with the guy, but then I found out that his dad kind of screwed him up. Listen, I'm not letting the beginning of Sweet Sweetback off the hook. I think Walt Whitman was quoting Emerson or someone about the complexity of people. People aren't one thing. I constantly point out my own hypocrisy on this page, so I suppose I should give Mario Van Peebles a chance. Van Peebles made a movie about his dad's most famous and influential movie. His dad, Melvin Van Peebles, made one of the most insane movies ever made and it changed Black cinema forever. It was funamentally and intentionally abrasive. It was meant to be a movie for Black people without giving any concern to how White America would have felt about it. But in the process, I'm going to say that Mario Van Peebles was raped because his dad wanted to get a rebellious shot. The beginning of Sweet Sweetback has Mario as a younger version of the eponymous protagonist losing his virginity to an older woman on camera.
(I'm sorry to use first names as shorthand, but the movie is Mario Van Peebles portraying his father, Melvin Van Peebles. Calling them "Mario" and "Melvin" is just to minimize confusion.)
The movie, made by Mario, discusses the morality of this sequence. It is kind of damning. But can I also say that it is only kind of damning. In an attempt to preserve Melvin's legacy, it kind of gives Melvin a pass. Now, I'm a son who is making a movie about my dad who is still alive. He's also looked at by history as a visionary civil rights leader and director. Do I feel comfortable taking my dad down? It's not like Melvin's crimes are completely whitewashed in this movie. But at the same time, some of the rough edges come off in the making of Baadasssss!. Because the movie doesn't really take a hard stance for or against Melvin, a lot of Melvin's crimes come across as eccentricities or stress-motivated. I don't care for that one bit. The movie sets up Melvin as a guy who doesn't really live in our world. There's something outside of reality for Melvin. A lot of that comes from fighting the good fight. But again, this is Mario making a movie about his dad. Mario is a character in the movei. There's this real split about who Melvin really is because Mario is writing about his own experience with his dad during these events, but he's also using his dad's journal to make the movie.
Because there are two very disparate sources of information -- emotional memory and potentially an unreliable narrator -- there is no actual consensus to who Melvin is. He's either this great director who had to put everything on the line to work with incompetents, or he was an abusive jerk who lashed out without reason. To a certain extent, I have to defer to Emerson; maybe he was both. He probably was. But we're seeing this all through the narrative of Mario Van Peebles, a grown man who is still a kid, scarred by his dad's behavior. The entire movie has the vibe of an abuse victim. He hates the abuse, but loves the abuser. There's something really sad about the movie because Mario's cries for help are whimpers in this movie. This seems like I am bullying Mario Van Peebles. Listen, I'm just a big advocate for mental help and I think that Mario kind of needs it. Who am I to diagnose this guy? I'm a guy with a Weebly account and that's it. But I just kept seeing these moments where I felt like Mario wanted to scream something profound, but it just got buried under his father's legacy. The rape of Mario Van Peebles is such a small part of the movie that let's his dad off the hook, between highlighting concessions that Melvin made and the positive feedback that others gave Mario, that I feel icky that this movie exists.
Now, if I had to move on beyond that point, there's a lot of misfires happening. Occasionally, I would watch the movie and point out competence. But Mario's movie does not have the narrative quality that Melvin's film did. Both movies are made on a shoestring budget. It's key to understanding Sweet Sweetback. That movie was done on the super-cheap that it was a miracle that it was ever made. But that cheapness came from the fact that Melvin Van Peebles divorced himself from the studio system when he wouldn't play well with others. (He absolutely shouldn't have played well with others, so keep that in mind.) Mario's movie reads as equally cheap, but without having the benefit of the freedom of storytelling. I'm not saying that Mario would have made something life-changing had he chosen not to get in bed with Showtime Pictures, but everything about this movie screams that it was made to be shopped to a distributor for little money. The filmmaking style comes across more like community theater than the guerilla filmmaking that his father employed.
It's not that Mario didn't have an artistic voice. He totally did. But they exist as moments in the story, not the story in total. They are all disparate elements that lack cohesion. For instance, there's a scene of Mario on the ceiling as an angel. It really has no tie to the story as a whole. Mario as Melvin would often talk to Mario as Melvin as Sweetback as a means to convey Melvin's frustration with the production process in general. But that Sweetback character is more used as a practical thing than it was a real issue that Melvin dealt with. It doesn't really help the movie. Also, large amounts of the story are told in voiceover. It's not like the film was all voiceover. It's just when moments needed to be truncated. There was one artistic element that I kind of liked, the faux-documentary style of character interviews. But because so many other artistic choices were being made, it lessened the impact of those documentary conversations. Those interviews would have worked, by the way, by themselves. Mario made the right decision to have real interviews with the actual peopel involved during the closing credits and that was effective, even if one of the interviewees was Bill Cosby. (We didn't know at the time! Also, Cosby, for all of his flaws, oddly had his fingers in a lot of moments of history.)
But the biggest disserve that Baadasssss! has is the fact that it doesn't sell Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song as the historical movie it was. I know that I could drop that name to a bunch of people and they wouldn't know what it was. Heck, without my history at the video store, I don't know that I could spout facts about the movie either. But the impact of this movie is neutered because of the lack of time devoted to what it did to society. In some ways, Dolemite is My Name follows a lot of the same beats that Baadasssss! does, but Dolemite is My Name is actually pretty darned fun. Dolemite is My Name knows what Dolemite's impact is on pop culture and sells it hard. It knows that it has importance, but also knows exactly where in the zeitgeist the movie falls. Even though I knew a lot of the stuff that was in Baadassss!, the film undersells the importance of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. If anything, it undersells a lot of things because it tries to do too much at the same time. That's the movie. It wants to just talk about this time period without having much to say. At the end of the day, this was about a movie that had a hard time being made. That's not a takeaway. Come down hard on something.
But also, you have to realize that I'm overly hard on biopics. It's not a surprise. I loved Dolemite is My Name because the movie itself became special. But biopics have the burden of reflecting reality and sometimes, reality isn't as interesting as fiction. When it is, I lose my mind. But when it's something like this, it oddly made Sweet Sweetback less special. I hope that Mario Van Peebles got something personal out of this movie because he needs that. But from an outside perspective, there's a lot of smoothed over edges when this thing should be as edgy as it gets.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.