Too often put in the same bag as the cynical, Hollywood-engineered wave of blaxploitation flicks it influenced, Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is pure, unadulterated ghetto anger that burns as fiercely now as when it was made over thirty years ago. Having started a filmmaking career in France with the support of Henri Langlois of the CinémathíÂ¨que Franí§aise, Van Peebles landed a contract with Columbia in the US and made the successful race comedy Watermelon Man in 1970 before moving on to Sweetback, a project so radical that no major studio would touch it. Undeterred, Van Peebles raised meagre funds himself and shot his film, the story of a black hustler who goes on the run after killing two white cops, in 19 days, almost losing his sight during the intensive editing and alienating most of his family and friends in the process. After a shaky start Sweetback took off thanks to the support of the Black Panthers, ending up the highest grossing independent film of 1971, topping Love Story at the box office.
Sure enough, Hollywood swiftly repositioned itself, MGM rewriting its script for Shaft, originally meant for a white detective, recruiting black hunk Richard Roundtree to star, Isaac Hayes to score and Gordon Parks to helm for credibility, while Warner Brothers followed suit with Superfly, imaginatively hiring Gordon Parks’ son to direct and Curtis Mayfield to write the music. Although the blaxploitation wave was short lived, it lasted long enough to turn into caricature the heady mix of flamboyant ghetto get-up, funky music and rebel black hero that Sweetback had introduced. Hayes and Mayfield’s brilliantly seductive soundtracks only helped glamorise a boorish, sexist law enforcer and an unscrupulous drug dealer respectively. Sweetback‘s mutinous, inflammatory call for revolt against white rule was excised while the film’s prominent but complex sexuality was entirely misunderstood and travestied. The new black (anti-)hero who had just emerged was quickly reduced to a high-sexed macho stud more influenced by the womanising antics of James Bond than by the firebrand politics of Malcolm X.
The truth is, Van Peebles had to pretend he was making a porn flick in order to get past the all-powerful all-white unions. This was dictated as much by financial necessity – the director simply couldn’t afford to pay union rates – as by politics – Van Peebles wanted a multiracial crew, which the unions couldn’t provide. The only way to dodge the unions’ strict controls was to have enough sex scenes in the film to make them believe Sweetback was porn, which fell outside of normal regulations.
But while Van Peebles may have been forced to put sex in his film he used it to provide an incendiary comment on race relations in America. Unlike Shaft or Superfly, Sweetback is no sexy daddy proudly parading his manhood but a passive, glazed-eyed hustler who is pushed into sex. At the start of the film Sweetback makes a living performing in a sex show for both black and white voyeurs. As he goes through the motions, his face blank and lifeless, he is no paragon of triumphant virility but a sexual object used by other people for their own gratification. Later Sweetback is captured by a white motorbike gang who give him a choice between fighting and fucking. Sweetback has to perform surrounded by whooping and cheering bikers, egged on by the white woman’s teasing ‘well?’. Performing here is very much the right word. The sex is an act, a show put on by the black man to entertain his white audience and stop them from beating him up. Tellingly Sweetback is wearing an incongruous white bow around his neck during the scene, complemented by a black hat at the end. This bow that comes out of nowhere – it was definitely not part of Sweetback’s outfit before he undressed – marks him out as an entertainer, a jester, the black man forced to act out the eternal fool to the white man, forced to conform to the racist stereotypes that the white man has stamped on him – oversexed buck or buffoon. The point is pressed home in another scene, which shows a black man shining a white man’s shoes with his bottom to make him laugh. The black man is constantly performing, forced to put on the act that is expected of him to avoid the white man’s hostility. Sex, just like clowning around, is something he has to do in order to survive in a white world.
In that perspective, the controversial opening scene of the film becomes easier to understand. Taken in by prostitutes when he was homeless and hungry and brought up in a brothel, the pre-pubescent Sweetback (played by Van Peebles’ own son Mario, thirteen at the time) is coerced into sex by a much older prostitute. The BFI has chosen to black out those early images on the DVD, apparently to conform with the Child Protection Laws, even though an earlier video version of the film included them in and Channel 4 and the ICA have both screened the film uncensored. This is regrettable because while those images are undeniably unsettling, they are essential to understand Sweetback’s character: throughout his entire life Sweetback survives by letting people use him for sex, and the brothel scene is where it all started. This is made crystal clear as the young Sweetback lying on top of the prostitute turns into the blank-faced adult Sweetback. That early scene is a defining moment in his life: it is the prostitute who gives him his moniker, the only name he answers to throughout the film. And if any remaining doubts linger about Van Peebles’ intentions, the opening quote of the film spells it out: ‘Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality’ (Traditional Prologue of the Dark Age). Sweetback is no endorsement of sleaziness or underage sex but an attempt to portray the black man’s experience as truthfully as possible, including in its most unpalatable aspects.
The sexuality depicted in Sweetback also links the film to the Underground cinema of the sixties. Unlike the strictly straight, conventional couplings of Shaft or Superfly the sex in Sweetback comes in many a deviant form: aside from the prostitutes of the opening scenes, there are voyeurs, lesbian performers, a queer compere who calls himself the ‘Good Dyke Fairy Godmother’ and later a trio of camp gay men. These are characters who would not be out of place in the work of Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs or the Kuchar Brothers. Belonging to a de facto marginal subculture Sweetback, sporting an outrageous mustard crushed velvet two-piece, is at home among the misfits and outsiders who hang out on the fringes of the dominant, mainstream, straight, white culture. This may be why Van Peebles found that the forms and spirit of Underground cinema were perfectly suited to the depiction of the black experience. Displaying the same disdain for straightforward narrative Van Peebles strips the plot down to its bare bones, most of the film consisting of Sweetback running through urban wasteland. The bold visual style clearly owes a lot to the techniques pioneered by the sixties filmmakers, and Van Peebles makes great use of split frames, jump cuts, coloured negative images and collages of urban imagery. Sweetback runs through empty concrete aqueducts, seedy back alleys, derelict buildings, rubbish-littered streets, and sewers before leaving the city for the unforgiving desert. Hostile signs flash on the screen – ‘Caution’, ‘Keep Out’ – as well as neon lights promising religious redemption – ‘Jesus Saves’ – as if this was the only path for the black man – fenced in by the white man while promised a better (after-)life by the Church.
Even more so than the visuals it is the design of the soundtrack that really impresses. A complex assemblage of discordant sounds, a cacophony of police sirens, funky theme tune (written by Van Peebles and performed by Earth, Wind and Fire) and Gospel standards, it is raw, cool and edgy, an aggressive, electrifying celebration of African-American culture as well as an angry denunciation of the treatment of the black man by white society. Most striking of all is the menacing, chilling ‘Won’t Bleed Me’, a call and response type of song between a group of singers and Sweetback whose chorus is ‘They bled your momma/They bled your poppa/Won’t bleed me!’.
However, while Sweetback is clearly a political film, it is devoid of any speeches, lecturing or debates of Black Power ideas – see Horace Ové’s 1976 Pressure for contrast. Rather than talking about overthrowing white power, Sweetback literally strikes back against white police. But as with all other aspects of the film there is nothing simplistic about this. It is not that action is better than words, it is simply that Sweetback doesn’t have the words. As the cops proceed to beat up a black militant kid senseless, Sweetback just passively stands on the side, ground down by centuries of white oppression. When he snaps and starts hitting them back, it’s not revolution, it’s pure reaction to an ‘overdose of black misery’. Sweetback is not the leader but the forerunner of the revolt, the first one to stand up but without having the words to articulate the ideas. That role is Moo Moo’s, the young activist that he rescues from the cops. In a later scene he helps him again after the youngster has been wounded in a shoot-out, and when a choice has to be made between saving himself or saving Moo Moo he favours the latter, saying: ‘he’s our future’.
No matter how exhilarating it may have been for black audiences of the time to see a black man stand up to white power, however, the ending of the film is rather downbeat. In a concluding scene that evokes the fugitive slaves of the past, Sweetback manages to kill the hounds that are chasing him, dodging the law once again. If this is a victory of sorts, it is a rather bleak one: Sweetback may have escaped, but he can’t stop running; he’s survived but nothing has changed for the black community. As Sweetback disappears over a desolate mountain and possibly over the border into Mexico, there is no real sense of triumph, only the defiant threat that he will be back: ‘Watch out’, says the superimposed title, ‘A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…’ Sweetback was originally conceived as a trilogy but Van Peebles couldn’t raise the money to make the two sequels he had planned. Sadly, on and off the screen the baad asssss hasn’t been able to make it back, kept safely away by white power structures.
Essay published on the Electric Sheep Magazine website, 29 May 2007.
Picture credit: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971).