Once upon a time film was seen as revolutionary. Startling to think there was a belief that watching a movie could cause an internal change inside the viewer so that they would rise up against the shackles of their lives or help free the oppressed across the globe. Nowadays a movie seems to merely want you to run out and buy all the products placed in the movie, purchase the Happy Meal or buy up all the licensed product being sold at Fan Boy designated shops at the mall. But back in the ’60s and ’70 there was a sense that cinema could be as effective as a bomb to bust the walls of tyranny. Melvin Van Peebles wanted to make an uncompromising movie that was a message to his community. He had already made Watermelon Man for a major Hollywood studio about a white guy who wakes up black one morning. The studio wanted it to end with the star (Godfrey Cambridge) waking up white and wondering if it was all a dream. Melvin got the film to end with his star coming to terms with having to be a black man for the rest of his life. Instead of signing a deal with the studio, Melvin went independent because he knew there was no way a major studio would touch Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Sweetback is an orphan who was taken off the street to help work in a Los Angeles brothel. In what has to be a rather big jump cunt, he goes from being young (Mario Van Peebles) to much older (Melvin Van Peebles) during a bedroom scene. Sweetback helps out around the house and participates in the live shows when rich white folks drop by to take in a view. One night during the show, a pair of cops show up needing a favor. A black person has died and they need a quick suspect to nab in order to show the community they care. They’ll hold Sweetback for a few days until things blow over and release him for lack of evidence. It’s part of the protection plan they offer the brothel to stay in business. The owner agrees and off Sweetback goes. During the trip to the police station, the cops nab a Black Panther. They decide to beat up the guy before booking. In the midst of the police brutality, Sweetback doesn’t hold back. He knocks out the cops and hits the road in search of freedom.
Because Melvin went indie on the film, he figure out how to make the film on the cheap. Part of it was claiming it was a cheap sexploitation film. And there is plenty of adult action in the film so it looks like it could have played the Pussycat Theater. This is not a film for small kids to watch. The film has a great rough look to it. Before the start of the film, Vinegar Syndrome warns viewers that the transfer will have issues especially since they shot in 35mm and 16mm. It’s faster to work in 16mm outside when you don’t have to worry about lugging a heavy Panavision camera in bad sections of 1970’s Los Angeles. There such a rough and ragged feel to the movie as if Peebles was emphasizing how badly he needs his message of standing up to man out to the people. The driving force of Earth, Wind and Fire’s soundtrack presses the themes to the audience. This isn’t a slick studio production. The revolution can’t wait for the perfect lighting scheme. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song remains a ground breaking indie film that wants to wake people up.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. Vinegar Syndrome has once more done a fine job in restoring an iconic film that should be appreciated without looking like it was left strewn around a salt cave. They’ve made this look so much better than the 16mm and DVD copies that came before. The audio is DTS-HD Mono. The levels bring out the dialogue and the music by Earth Wind and Fire. The movie is subtitled in English.
Career interview with Melvin Van Peebles (23:23) is courtesy of Olumide Productions. He accounts how he made a film Three Day Pass in France that got Hollywood’s attention. He gives the history of making and releasing Sweetback. It was a risky film to release since was for adults. Even though the early screenings weren’t attended, by the fourth screening, it was packed. He released the soundtrack before the film to get publicity of playing the songs on the radio.
One Baadasssss Woman! (31:57) interviews actress Niva Ruschell. She was determined to be an actress and play great roles.
Extensive Q&A from the 2013 Black Panther Film Festival at the Maysles Center in Harlem (36:18) sits down with Melvin. What’s extra cool is that the late great Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) is sitting up front.
The Real Deal (What it was…is!) (22:08) is archival ‘making of’ doc by Melvin Van Peebles from a previous release. Melvin gives a tour of Paris.
Historical commentary track with Sergio Mims (assistant director of PENITENTIARY)
Archival still gallery (4:56) includes newspaper ads, interviews and posters for the film.
Trailer (2:30) lets you know that Sweetback is on the run and won’t be easily caught.
Extensive booklet with an essay by Travis Crawford.
Vinegar Syndrome presents Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Screenplay by: Melvin Van Peebles Starring: Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles. Rated: R. Running Time: 97 minutes. Released: May 29, 2018.
Tags: Melvan Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback, Vinegar Syndrome