The mission of The Department of Afro-American Research Arts and Culture to identify the global significance of the creative contributions pioneered by an international diaspora of Blackness
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Friday, August 22, 2008

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed and starred in this powerful and inflammatory attack on White America. After the body of a black man is discovered, Sweetback helps two white 'acquaintances' in the police force to look good by agreeing to go with them to the station as a suspect. But he is forced to go on the run after brutally attacking the two policemen when they arrest and beat up a young black man.

My Politics Is To Win: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaass Song

Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaaasss Song is a complicated film to concisely analyze due to the depth and breadth of messages throughout. A story is told through the struggle of Sweetback, a “sex performer”, who gets “picked” by the cops to be brought into the police station as a suspect in a murder case. During this ride, the police get a radio dispatch of a disturbance which ends up in the capture of an 18-year-old Black Panther, Mumu. The cops brutalize the young revolutionary and as Sweetback’s cuff is unlocked by one of the officers, the “song” begins.

Beginning in the early 1970s, a new genre of film emerged, blaxploitation, a term coined by former NAACP head Junius Griffin in what was his insult to the imagery depicted in popular street life film “Superfly”. It is arguable whether the portmanteau accurately describes the genre or not, yet it has been accepted if not glorified by film culture and its critics. Many would agree that there exists the blaxploitation genre and then there is Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaaasss Song as many don’t consider this film is worthy of being grouped in the saturation and commercialist exploits in the way blaxploitation are categorically represented.

There also is a question of intent on behalf of the filmmaker and one may never know if there was a purpose driving every frame of the film. Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton was so fascinated with what he saw that one week after viewing, he devoted an entire publication to the film in the Party newspaper. What this critical analysis did for the film forgave the technical shortcomings and provided an allegorical context that mirrored the platforms set forth in the principle mission of the Black Panther Party.

The opening scene was indicative of this. A little boy is in the kitchen eating after having been famished for days. He is unkempt, filthy and had patches of hair missing and sores symbolizing symptoms of being impoverished. There is a camera pan of black women lining the kitchen watching the boy as he ravenously feeds himself. Judging from how scantily each woman is clad, you quickly realize this is a whore house. One woman, whose breasts are virtually falling out of her dress, continues to spoon out heaps of stew to the hungry boy. Even as prostitutes, these women are still serving as pleasure providers but now with nurturing instincts. This child is fed and repaired from the poverty and despair stricken upon him.

This is a moment of reality and intimacy seen from a position of potential but depending on the pair of eyes fixed on these images, it can quickly turn into notions of perversion and perplexity.

Next scene, the boy places towels underneath the door shafts as a woman motions for him to enter her room. She takes off her shirt revealing her naked body and tells the little boy to do the same. She pulls him into her and commands him “You ain’t gettin’ your picture taken. Move!!” This marks the beginning of the thematic element of movement defining the film.

The encounter between the little boy and the prostitute signifies a sexual baptism as the gospel songs “Wade In The Water” and “This Little Light Of Mine” play behind the movement taking place. It is said that most young men who grow up living in a house of this order tend to get physically and visually introduced early into a sexualized atmosphere. A young boy thrusting on a grown woman may allude to the realm of child pornography and it even may dilute an unsettled mind looking to be offended or repulsed by the imagery. 

As we revisit the film’s opening, the woman moans because of the boy’s movements and proclaims he has “a sweet, sweet back!!” By the end of the opening credits, the boy transforms into a mature adult male continuing to thrust inside the woman, she lets out a climactic howl, he puts on his hat and continues to move further into his statured virility. This was to be interpreted as a rite of passage, an anointing of sorts. Even in a society where sexuality is demonized, this was an angelic indoctrination of manhood.

The encounter exemplifies how Sweetback is initially defined as essentially a male prostitute. The conditions and predicaments causing him to escape are the same circumstances that brought on the decision to monetize his “sweet back”.

Two prestigious intellectuals in African American literature, Haki Madhubuti, and author Lerone Bennett blasted “Sweetback” for its animalistic aesthetic in the opening scene and any subsequent scenes involving sexual acts. They did not agree with the correlation of sexuality utilized as an aid for survival. Bennett even went so far as to claim the boy is raped by the prostitute.

There is an ongoing need to survive for anyone with a beating heart. Those who have a tougher time of survival who have to run on blistered feet pump blood with a bleeding heart. The theme song, written by Melvin Van Peebles and performed by 70’s soul legends Earth, Wind & Fire includes the verse “you bled my mama, you bled my papa, but you won’t bleed me!”

Pain is an effect that resonates across all cultures and this film does not celebrate pain as much as it champions survival. In an interview on a French television show, Van Peebles speaks of a time he sought a publisher of his book “The Bear of The F.B.I.” He was told the book wasn’t black enough and was told by publishers to incorporate more references to lynching, slavery, brutality, or other tragic associations that show “you’re in pain” or to “show that the system made you suffer”.

Huey Newton not only wrote a revolutionary analysis of Sweetback for his newspaper but made the film required viewing for any new member joining the Party because it was a righteous signification on how black people have exhausted “turning the other cheek” in submission to oppressive policies, behaviors, and actions.

Melvin Van Peebles had no financial or moral support to make this film so he completed the film with his own resources. The budget was $500,000, including a reported $50,000 loan from comedian Bill Cosby. Two barriers prevented early success for the movie, one being there were only two theaters in America screening it, Atlanta and Detroit, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) voted the film be given an “X” rating for strong sexual content and thematic violence.

Once controversy surrounded Newton’s endorsement and wholehearted embrace by the militant Black Panther Party amid a gradual transition from accepting nonviolent approaches to achieving equality and civil rights as Americans, the movie grossed $4.1 million dollars, an 800% return on the investment. It was marked as a sign of the times, aggressive actions in self-defense were unexpressed by black characters in the film, decorated actors such as Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson and Woody Strode were masculine but not sexually assertive or virile and Sweetback christened the once invisibility of shining black manhood depicted in American film.

Van Peebles searched for a change in the film so he aimed to make good on the aspiration. He created a character that was a condition in the community. An unconscious man who unconsciously obtains consciousness subconsciously by defending a young male, the future, and in doing so continued to escape so he can maintain his own future. The plot of the film backed his statement as a man expressing himself in an industry that refused to invest in his imagination.    

Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaaasss Song is a film of victory, emergence, pride and there are countless elements to this film and its impact on black culture, philosophy, and independent filmmaking that renders this film a classic statement of empowerment for all people oppressed.

Mr. Wone