R. It's been rated since the initial X-rating. This might be the longest MPAA warning, so bear with me. Infamously, Melvin Van Peebles didn't get this movie rated by the MPAA. He knew that it was going to be a movie that was going to be surpressed by "the Man", (not making a joke, his words). Because of this, it got the X rating. Now, I absolutely believe that this movie should have gotten something that keeps younger audiences away because it has some of the most questionable content. I tried watching this movie a few years ago and didn't realize what you could ethically show on camera. While there is a lot of on-screen sex involving nudity, one of these moments involves a child. It's wildly uncomfortable and, as much as I want you to watch something that is revolutionary, it is too much. R, but probably should have been more.
DIRECTOR: Melvin Van Peebles
Yeah, if this wasn't such an important film in Black history, I probably wouldn't have watched it. When I had Film Struck (a month before the streaming service announced its termination), I thought that I should watch this one. I knew that it was in the Criterion Collection since the Laserdisc days. When I watch fan videos of great cinema, the image of Sweet up top keeps appearing in that list. This was one of those movies that I just had to see. But then the movie starts off with a child, the director's son, being raped by a prostitute and it's kind of lauded as this heroic victory for the boy. The joke, despite the fact that the movie really rides a fine line between jokes and commentary (I think I just redefined "satire"), is that he is such a great lover that he started young. But it really comes across as gross. Yeah, I almost said I wasn't going to watch the movie. But say what you will, this is Van Peebles entire point with his marketing campaign.
Call me a rube, but when I found out about the history of the film that I mentioned above, I wondered if I could just power through it. I really hoped that the whole movie wouldn't be one giant statuatory rape moment. (Note: I also don't want to watch the infamous Romeo and Juliet that's lauded as the most important adaptation of the play either for the same reason. But Van Peebles calling out the Man, which unfortunately includes me, I knew that I should try again. Luckily, this is the most offensive thing in the movie. It's odd, and I'm sorry for digressing a bit, because so much of the movie is considered progressive by today's standards. It treats sex workers as human beings. It doesn't laugh at the gay community. If anything, it is a rallying of outcasts from traditional Conservative America. I love that. But by including the statuatory rape sequence, it provides evidence that the Man so desperately wants. By showing something objectively evil, it connects all those things that would be construed as moral relativism as also evil. There's no room for nuanced debate because the film okayed something that is absolutely inappropriate.
Anyway, I'm going to try to move on from the first five minutes of the film and talk about Sweetback as a movie in its own. I'm glad that Sweet Sweetback's gets context in a box set. I think the movie oh-so-desperately needs the other movies in the Melvin Van Peebles collection to see the evolution of a filmmaker. Sweetback is an appropriately angry film. It is the voice of a filmmaker who is fed up and sick of hiding behind allegory and inferences. No one can accuse Van Peebles of being a kind of director who doesn't let his themes and motifs known, but Sweetback takes it to a new level. The Story of a Three-Day Pass feels, in retrospect, like a filmmaker knowing what a filmmaker should look like. Yes, there's an authentic voice. There's a message to be said. But he also knows that there's a level of prestige that needs to be earned before yelling themes at the audience. If you really wanted to watch Three Day Pass just as a gorgeous independent movie, I suppose it's possible. Watermelon Man feels like he's got the embers of frustration. He's sick of the slow movement of society, so he's going to be louder with his criticisms. But he also wants the film to be marketable. Sweet Sweetback is an attempt to burn down the system.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is 1971, the same year that Shaft came out. Black cinema is a real thing at this point and it is impossible to ignore. Shaft, for all of its raw attack on White America, is still a very marketable movie. There's a reason that we all know Isaac Hayes's hit sharing a name with the film. Most White people, who probably haven't seen Shaft, know of Shaft's reputation. Shaft is a fun movie with social commentary. Sweet Sweetback is something that is oddly fun for a lot of the movie, while simulatenously being incredibly tragic. I can't believe I'm going to do this, but I'm going to be using a compare and contrast paragraph to explain why Sweetback is important. (Also, the award for the worst accidental topic sentence goes to the previous sentence.) For all of Shaft's criticisms about White America and the state of racial inequality in the movie, it still lives under the assumption that success is possible for the Black man. John Shaft has White allies who stick by him. Like James Bond, we know that he's going to be successful and have adventures. Sure, he will often be annoyed by the racial inequality in America, but these tend to be opportunities to stick it to the man. Let's contrast this to Sweet Sweetback. Sweet starts off at the bottom of the pile. He is cooperative with police until they go too far. His only form of success comes from discarting society's norms and becoming a fugitive. He doesn't celebrate victories. Instead, he survives trauma. There is no laughter at the Man. There is a hatred of the Man who acts as a clear evil throughout the story.
From the audience's perspective, there is a delight when Sweet narrowly avoids his captors. But his captors aren't part of what White America considers evil. I would say that the bad guys are cops. That's mostly true, but the real villains in the movie are White people of all kinds. While the majority of villains in the movie are White cops, its even in the small moments where we see that any White person in the film is a villain in the piece. When Sweet and Mu-Mu evade the police only to fall prey to a motorcycle gang, the gang members go back on their word (after Sweet wins a challenge based on sexual prowess). It's not just that White people betray Sweet that we should be worried. It's the notion that a biker gang who prides themselves on being anti-police would rather collaborate with their sworn enemies rather than allow a Black man, who shares fugitive status with them, to thrive. The notion of allyship is dead in this movie. This isn't an exploitation movie. It's a Black power movie and it absolutely should be. Thank God I read the Wikipedia article on this. (Yeah, I should be reading more scholarly works. But also, Wikipedia is right there.) There's a reason why this movie was required viewing for the Black Panther Party. This was a movie that wasn't going to let White America off of the hook.
Apparently, making this movie was chaos. I also own Mario Van Peebles' film Baadasssss, which is about the making of this movie. I can't wait to learn about that stuff. But I am mostly curious about the last half-hour of the movie. The first two acts of the film, while kind of scant on plot, are traditionally what a movie looks like. There's an inciting incident. There's rising action. Even for a good chunk of the film, Sweet is running from the law, there are still elements of plot. But then then the movie turns into one of the longest montages I've ever seen. Now, the music is great. Heck, as a montage, it's great. But what it also is...is anticlimactic. Now, here's me being the analytical guy commenting on that. The analytical guy reads into what Van Peebles was probably doing: the journey never ends for Sweet Sweetback. Racism will never end, but that doesn't mean that people should actively stop fighting for basic survival. It's a message to keep fighting violently and to understand that it will never be easy. But as a story device, it feels like the end is a really intense stall tactic to make the movie an hour and a half long. That's the deal with escape movies. There's only so much plot that these stories can have. That's not even a criticism. Escape movies tend to be my favorite movies.
Do you know how much I want people to watch the majority of Sweet Sweetback? So much. But it is way too filthy in the worst possible way. It's kind of insane that I'm not reading a ton on the first ten minutes of the movie. But no one is saying anything and I suppose I have to live with that as a response. It's a militant as heck movie and I'm overall glad I watched it. That being said, those first ten minutes...too much.
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.