January 24, 2005 -- This is a beautifully-crafted tribute to pioneering independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles by his son, Mario Van Peebles. This film re-enacts Van Peebles' Herculean effort to write, produce, direct, edit and star in his revolutionary 1971 film, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.” Turned down by all the major studios, Van Peebles scraped together enough money from various unusual sources to get the film made, barely.
Peebles had to work outside the studio system, on the fringes of Hollywood, using people from the pornographic film industry, among other sources. One funny scene has Van Peebles filming, then screening a nude scene for the benefit of Screen Actors Guild representatives. He could not afford SAG salaries, but SAG was not involved in porn films, so Van Peebles shrewdly disguised his project as a porn film. He pioneered the use of a multi-racial cast and crew, pioneered the use of music to market his film and pioneered other cinematic techniques. The many battles he fought to get his film made and distributed were amazing. What is even more amazing is that it is a true story.
Mario Van Peebles plays his father in the film, while Mario is played as a young boy by Khleo Thomas of “Holes.” Van Peebles also plays his father's alter-ego in the movie, a naysayer dressed in a “Baadassss!” movie costume. It is strange to see Peebles playing his own father, and then see the young actor playing him, when you know Peebles wrote some of these scenes based on his own memory of events. Most of the movie is based on his father's book about making the movie.
This is one of the best films I've ever seen about making a movie. It captures Van Peebles' drive, determination, his inventiveness, his ability to think on his feet and quickly adapt to every setback along the way. The setbacks that Van Peebles overcame in making the film are amazing. You literally could not make this stuff up. At one point his crew was jailed for grand larceny because the police had never seen a mixed-race movie crew in charge of so much movie equipment. When the film was completed, only two movie theaters in the United States agreed to screen it. Van Peebles thought he was ruined when nobody showed up for the first showings of the film.
Mario Van Peebles does a great job mixing footage shot for the film with footage from his father's original film, with fantasy sequences and interviews with the people who made the original film. Peebles, Khleo Thomas, and the rest of the cast give excellent performances. This is a very complex film, but it is beautifully put together. It is informative, compelling, dramatic entertainment. This is one of the best films of 2004. It rates an A.
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