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September 15th, 2004 David Walker | DVD & TV
 

The Van Peebles Family Double Feature

     
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Baadasssss! (2004)--Recounting how his father, Melvin, made the seminal 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Mario Van Peebles has put together Baadasssss!, a solid and entertaining picture that pays respect to his father and emerges as one of the better tales of the filmmaking process. In addition to co-writing and directing, Van Peebles stars as his father, a multitalented artist driven by his desire to make a film about a black street hustler who becomes a revolutionary.

Baadasssss! starts off in 1970, after the release of Melvin's first studio feature, Watermelon Man. Melvin is on the verge of being one of the first black directors to be embraced by Hollywood. But his desire not to make another comedy, or feed into the black stereotypes he witnessed watching films in his youth, has left him uncertain about what to do. And that's when he decides to make a film about a performer in a live sex show who kills some racist cops brutalizing a black man, and then escapes the corrupt justice system, vowing to return for more vengeance. The problem is, no one wants to fund a movie like that.

Melvin Van Peebles' accomplishments as a filmmaker were tremendous, and even though the self-proclaimed "godfather of black cinema" seems to be a bit confused about who invented black film, his story is compelling nonetheless. Mario manages to convey much of that importance--as well as some of the bullshit--without turning Baadasssss! into a gushing love letter to his father.

Watermelon Man (1970)--Contrary to popular belief, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was not Melvin Van Peebles' first film. His first film was Story of a Three Day Pass, followed in 1970 by the director's best film, the subversive, studio-backed comedy Watermelon Man.

Jeff Gerber is your typical white American male with a wife, two kids, and a job as an insurance salesman. When it comes right down to it, he's a bigot. Oh, he's not the sort who will burn a cross on anyone's lawn; but he's not above making racist jokes or being an obnoxious jackass. And then one morning Jeff Gerber wakes to find that somehow he has been transformed into a black man.

Melvin Van Peebles directs with a kinetic energy and fuses brash, over-the-top comedy with true emotional resonance. But what really make Watermelon Man one of the best and most underrated comedies of the '70s is its star, the late, great Godfrey Cambridge. Starting out the film made up as a white man, Cambridge gives the best performance of his career. Delivering a steady stream of one-liners, Cambridge plays Jeff with the same type of hyper fervor found in the best work of comedians like Richard Pryor or Robin Williams.

 
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