Death of Melvin Van Peebles, pioneer of “blaxploitation”

Melvin Van Peebles, the avant-garde filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work
influenced “blaxploitation” in the 1970s as well as many directors, died on the evening of Tuesday, September 22, at the age of 89, his family announced in a statement.

“My father was aware that the image of blacks matters. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? “, reacted his son, actor Mario Van Peebles, in a statement Wednesday.

Sometimes nicknamed the “Godfather of modern African-American cinema”, Melvin Van Peebles was particularly noted for Sweet Sweetback’s baadasssss Song (1971), one of the most influential films of its time. This low-budget film, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, is the hypersexualized and violent tale of a con artist, on the run after killing white police officers who beat up an Afro revolutionary. -American.

Source of inspiration for Tarantino and Jenkins

With his raw portrayal of life in the ghettos, coupled with a message of emancipation, the director laid the foundations for a genre that would influence dozens of films in the years that followed, questioning his time on the Afro condition. American. “Until now, films about blacks are mostly stories told from the point of view of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythm and their speeches”, explained Melvin Van Pleebles in 1971, the year of Sweet Sweetback’s baadasssss Song, opening the way to the cinema of “blaxploitation” which still influences, even today, great figures of the big screen, of Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) to Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight.

In 1980, during a conference, Melvin Van Peebles explained his approach in these terms: “ Our community has been brainwashed tremendously, and all it knows about cinema is the color white. We have to start there. The revolution is located on this ground. Revolutionizing is not about standing up and exchanging ideas. »

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Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on August 21, 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. Graduated in 1953 from Wesleyan University in Ohio, he joined the United States Army, enlisting as a navigator in the United States Air Force for three years. After his military service, he began to write short films. After passing through the Netherlands, where he took acting lessons, he moved to Paris before returning to Hollywood.

He is then hired to write and direct Watermelon Man, an anti-racist comedy about a white man waking up one morning in the skin of a black man. It is with the money earned from the making of the film that he will be able to launch the production of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This film will meet a considerable public success, collecting 14 million dollars of receipts for a budget of 100,000 dollars.

Melvin Van Peebles’ death comes days before the New York Film Festival, which will celebrate the 50e birthday of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A cover of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is scheduled on Broadway in 2022, with Mario Van Peebles, his son, as producer.