Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

“Like you gonna have to kinda lay out, stretch out a little while, be real cool. Kinda lay dead. Ol’ Beetle’ll let you know what’s happenin’, what’s goin’ down. You don’t have to worry about nothin’. If you need anything, anything at all, brother, just keep the faith in Beetle, ol’ Beetle goin’ to bring you through, cause this is just a skirmish. You know how the game goes, baby. But you keep the faith in me and you my man. You my favorite man. Can you dig it, baby? Together, you know, maintain. They can’t bother you as long as Beetle’s with you. Now you go on and hibernate like that ol’ bear and don’t go nowhere, can you dig it? Yeah? Ha! Mellow. Go out the back door, now. Speed along and don’t let nobody know where you at. Let sleeping dogs rest. You dig it, baby? Ha, ha, yeah.”

‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’, directed by Melvin Van Peebles in 1971, is an American independent action thriller. Van Peebles (and his son Mario in a cameo) plays Sweetback, an black orphan in Los Angeles who is brought up in a brothel. His nickname comes from the impressive size of a part of his anatomy, an asset that causes him to be coerced into performing live sex shows. When he is arrested by the police after a case of mistaken identity, he witnesses the beating of a member of the Black Panthers. Sweetback escapes and the rest of the film follows him as his flees down through California to Mexico, encountering Hells Angels and trading sex for favours. It’s a visceral movie and, despite the parodiable details of the plot, it is play entirely seriously. The drive behind the film is to empower the central character, and this certainly happens, albeit in a twisted sense. The real empowerment comes from the story of the making of the film with Van Peebles single-minded drive to get his vision down without the help or interference of the corporate, and mostly white, Hollywood. At times, the director’s determination to produce a movie is compromised by dubious decisions, not least his treatment of other actors, including his young son, but the result is undeniably powerful and important. The film was hugely successful and led to the genre of the Blaxploitation film, one that reached a zenith with ‘Shaft’. Whilst ‘Shaft’ was clearly a mainstream generic film with a black identity, this movie has character that is utterly unique.

Would I recommend it? It’s not an easy watch but it has energy and the importance of the film at the time makes it a must-see. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Killer of Sheep’ for another depiction of life in LA.


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