Less than a year ago, the legendary Melvin Van Peebles died. He left a legacy as a highly independent creator with many hyphens who changed the course of black filmmaking and cinema overall.
During his influential life, Van Peebles has tackled and excelled in every imaginable medium of storytelling. He has recorded seven studio albums and four soundtracks, written 13 books and one graphic novel, created nine plays, directed eight feature films, four short films and one music video. He almost single-handedly paved the way for blaxploitation and created a place on Broadway for African-American directors.
On his 90th birthday would be diversity Ranked 10 movies that Van Peebles either directed, wrote the screenplay or starred in.
Born in Chicago, Van Peebles earned a BA in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and served in the Air Force for three and a half years before moving to San Francisco to become a cable car operator. There he wrote his first book, The Big Heart, which fueled his ambition to get into filmmaking. He soon made his first short films, Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957) and Sunlight (1957). Although both displayed his already considerable talent, a biased Hollywood paid no attention to him.
Van Peebles soon moved to France with a desire to pursue a career in a less hostile environment. He learned French, made another short film, Les cinq cent balles (1963), began writing novels and adapted one of his books into his first feature film, The Story of a Three Day Pass. The success of The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which he both wrote and directed, was impressive enough. Then you learn that he also composed the score and you are incredibly amazed. Van Peebles’ amazing, far-reaching talent soon resembled Orson Welles. Hollywood, namely Columbia Pictures, was eventually intrigued enough to offer Van Peebles a film – they commissioned him to direct the identity-bending satire Watermelon Man (1970).
The comedy was such a hit for Columbia, grossing $1.1 million, that the studio offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal.
And yet, Van Peebles turned down the safe bet of taking one of the biggest risks in Hollywood history. For his third feature film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), he would not only write, edit, direct and compose the music for it. He also starred as the titular anti-police hero. If the barometer of a great film, as explained in Dolemite is My Name (2019) – it has to have “funnies”, “tits” and “kung-fu” – then Van Peebles is horny and violent, visually playful and aesthetically stylish crime could be the best film ever made. And the audience at the time agreed.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” spawned a hit soundtrack sung by Earth, Wind & Fire and, with a budget of $150,000, became the highest-grossing American independent film to date, grossing $15.2 million brought in. The triumph enabled Van Peebles to produce Tony Award-nominated musicals such as Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) and Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973), extending his creative abilities to others wise could prove means.
Later in life, Van Peebles became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange, collaborated on films with his son, writer-director Mario Van Peebles, and remained an avid runner well into his 80s. He died in 2021, just as the Criterion Collection was releasing a box set of his greatest works. Even before this recognition, his work could be seen as filmmakers like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, and the blaxploitation directors who followed him were influenced by Van Peebles’ unyielding creative spirit, his desire to see black uplifting on screen, and influenced were his incomparable artistic skills. He is still a man whose reach is totally ahead of his time, with a vision that is still groundbreaking, daring and bold
Honorable Mentions: “Three Pickup Men for Herrick” (1957); “Identity Crisis” (1989); “Vroom Vroom Vroooom” (1996); “Le conte du ventre plein (belly on your stomach)” (2008); “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha” (2008)