I sat down with pen and paper to make notes on Melvin van Peebles’ milestone film for the first time: I had heard it mentioned in numerous film history books, including Mark Cousins’ very entertaining The Story of Film, and approached it with a feeling of academic solemnity. This was to be a serious film viewing. But 3 minutes in pen and paper had dropped onto the floor at my feet and I was scrambling for the fridge to arm myself with a can of fire water and a packet of crisps, the wind of this joyous flatulence of a film cutting pleasurably across my face. This is a film so wacky, horrifying, hilarious and fiercely political all at the same time that it defies all notions of academic stuffiness I had come to expect. Then again, I might have known from the title that there had certainly been no other film of this kind to have been made before. Made in 1971 whilst the Vietnam War was raging across the screens and student protestors’ blood was being painted on the white walls of Washington, Sweet Sweetback is an assault on the senses even today with Peebles’ varied use of jump cuts, split screen, freeze frames, filters, zooms, superimpositions, etc. Such techniques had been used in film before, but never with so much in-your-face brashness as here.
A work like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song proves what Peter Greenaway meant when he once remarked that “continuity is boring.” A curious statement to make, yet what it highlights is the sheer freedom of expression that film allows, and I suppose that what Greenaway meant by this was that too little films—including some of his own, by the way—seemed to have forgotten that film making is, at its core, fun. In breaking the conventional protocol enforced for years that we call the Classical Hollywood filmmaking and by actually experimenting with the filmmaking and editing processes, Peebles treats his viewer to an all-night (well, 1 hour and 37 minutes to be precise) free-for-all visual buffet. If only more films had that level of energy and joy for the craft with the sheer goofiness to pull it off. Indeed, I must say that it felt like I was watching a home movie at times, but the best kind of home movie where the person filming dreams of making films in the future. The kind of home movie where they will play, cut, move to another place and play, cut, then move again. The kind that will infuriate relatives and probably eavesdrop on family-shattering conversations by accident, but at least the video would have been worth watching.
The film also has a devout and healthy hatred of the corrupt enforcers of the law: the eponymous hero skewers them with pool cues, beats them with knuckle busters and sets them on fire, all to jaunty Ramsey Lewis Trio style music. Peebles treats his characters with the subtlety of a road runner cartoon, with Sweetback as Roadrunner and the police as Wile E. Coyote. Sweetback is somewhat justified for this to say the least when some policemen break into a flat, supposedly looking for him, and then beat the innocent occupant until he is practically blinded with his own blood. After this is done, one of them concludes: “That’s not Sweetback.” The other replies “So what?” Sweetback does however skin police dogs, which was a shade too sadistic for my taste.
All in all, it would be unfair of me to describe all of the details of this film, but I will say that Terry Southern’s very funny book Blue Movie—supposedly written for Stanley Kubrick after the success of Dr Strangelove—about a dedicated filmmaker trying to make the most artistic and socially redeeming pornographic film ever made. Necrophile producers, neurotic actors and clueless cameramen and eventually the Vatican and the pope invade its pages, but Melvin van Peebles baadasssss song is what jumps to mind in reflecting Southern’s anarchic spirit for the brawny and the bawdy. Not Kubrick.