This past weekend, while most pop culture watchers were debating the latest entry in the Tyler Perry oeuvre — and moviegoers parting with a collective $25 million in order to see it — an historical cinematic milestone flew in under the radar. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the brainchild and labor of love of Melvin van Peebles, father of Mario and the progenitor of the blaxploitation genre, turned 40 years old.
Ostensibly about an orphan’s journey from a Los Angeles whorehouse to exile in Mexico, Sweet Sweetback fell into several bucket categories upon its release in 1971: borderline pornographic potboiler, political commentary, transmission mechanism for black social frustration, and vehicle for African-American empowerment, just to name a few. It eventually evolved from cult-classic status to becoming an exemplar, rightly or wrongly, of independent black filmmaking.
Sweet Sweetback was ahead of its time, and the film’s political overtones were unmistakable. The movie’s ominous opening line was immortal for the way it articulated the rise of the black actualization: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.” The protagonist, played by the elder van Peebles, is lauded primarily for his sexual endowment and manages to cut a swath through practically every woman in Southern California. Sweet Sweetback was considered novel because of its impossibly limited budget and imaginative visual style.
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Yet the movie’s contents were hardly benign or family friendly. The film was controversial, even when viewed through the advent of the “sexual revolution” that took place in the late 60s and 70s: the movie was so explicit that it was slapped with a rare X-rating. The movie features a disturbing and highly inappropriate scene in which a young Mario van Peebles, playing an adolescent version of his father, is deflowered by an aging prostitute in a bordello. Legend has it that van Peebles contracted a sexually transmitted disease while filming the movie’s raunchy sex scenes.
Shock value notwithstanding, films like Sweet Sweetback helped make blaxploitation movies a cultural fixture. They also accomplished something that Hollywood’s cinematic endeavors had, up until that point in history, failed to do: introduce talented black actors to the mainstream. The controversial yet successful brand of filmaking gave ballast to the careers of some of black Hollywood’s most iconic figures: Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, and Vonetta McGee were among the earliest beneficiaries of the genre.
And decades before the world marveled over Angelina Jolie’s haughty athleticism, black moviegoers of the early 70s luxuriated in the presence of the Amazonian super-vixen Pam Grier. Whether she was playing Coffy or Sheba, the bodacious Ms. Grier could tame any man with a mere flash of her shapely legs — and yet was still deadly enough to disarm an adversary using weapons in her ample Afro.
Naturally, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery in the entertainment industry. As a result, blaxploitation got a new lease on life in the decades far removed from its heyday, with younger viewers being treated to parodies that introduced them to the genre. Some of the most noteworthy of the imitations came in the form of the uproarious 1988 film, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and 2001’s under-appreciated Undercover Brother.
But it’s perhaps fitting that Sweet Sweetback celebrated the fourth decade of its existence on the same weekend that Madea’s Big Happy Family made its big screen debut The nearly identical themes that once dominated the terms of discussion about Sweet Sweetback and other early black films still persist to this day — especially when talking about Perry’s vehicles.
As a genre, blaxploitation movies were shot through with the most pernicious of stereotypes. One could almost make the case that the disparaging criticism directed at those films anticipated the rise of Perry, Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers, and certainly hip-hop. Sexism, hyper-promiscuity, cartoonish violence and pervasive drug use came to characterize early black cinema, with those images still haunting the debate about whether they are an appropriate depiction of blacks.
Context being king, however, it’s important to understand the fires in which blaxploitation movies were forged. These movies were given life at a time when black political and cultural influence was still in its infancy, and autonomous black filmmaking was rare if nonexistent. Although the images were broadly negative, Sweet Sweetback and its progeny provided the first introduction of black culture to a mainstream that was still widely resistant to the idea of independent African-American creativity.
Times have changed, yet some of the circumstances surrounding black filmmaking have not. The 40th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback should perhaps provide the opportunity to reflect upon the current state of black filmmaking. Negative images may titillate, but they rarely satisfy for longer than it takes for the credits to start rolling.
Although Tyler Perry’s movies have taken heat for trafficking in negative stereotypes, at their core his movies are resonant, powerful and advance positive themes of family, redemption and self-empowerment (and for the record, van Peebles himself is on record saying congratulatory things about Perry’s movies).
The leitmotif of blaxploitation films was completely divergent from what one finds in a Perry production, yet few will deny their cultural import and permanence. Perhaps in another 40 years, people may come to view Perry’s works with the same favorable cinematic value as Sweet Sweetback.