Phil on Film Index

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Review - Baadasssss!

In 1970 Melvin Van Peebles was one of the first black filmmakers to make a studio film with his surprise hit Watermelon Man. After the success of this picture Paramount were set to offer him a three-picture deal and were keen to know what his next project would be, hoping for something in the same comedic vein as his previous effort. Melvin, However, had other ideas. He wanted to make a film a film about a “real street brother” which was relevant to a modern black audience, which reflected their struggle against oppression and bigotry. Fuelled by the eye-rolling, subservient black caricatures which had populated Hollywood films for so many years, Van Peebles began work on his new script. ''Hollywood liked to show us clowning,'' Melvin recalls, ''but America wasn't in a laughing mood - especially black America.''
The result was a film called Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the story of a righteous black stud who attacked two racist policemen and went on the run, exposing the racist underbelly of America in the process. Sweetback came out of nowhere and hit a nerve among black the black community in the post-Vietnam, disillusioned USA. With the support of the Black Panthers, Sweetback became the biggest independent hit of the year and kick-started the profitable Blaxploitation genre of the 70’s.

Over thirty years later, the story of Sweetback is revisited by Melvin’s son Mario in his affectionate recreation/homage Baadasssss!. Playing his own father, Mario Van Peebles tells the story of the sacrifices, obstacles and arguments which went into the making of his father’s most celebrated work. Like his father, Mario both directs and stars in what is clearly a labour of love for the younger Van Peebles. Unfortunately, Mario’s cinematic love letter never catches fire and, despite benefiting from the more sophisticated filmmaking techniques, it lacks the passion or energy which characterised the 1971 film it depicts.

Mario gives himself a problem from the start with the semi-documentary approach he adopts, cutting interview segments with the characters (played by actors) into the film to comment on the scenes which have just been depicted. This is a clumsy method which doesn’t really work at all and only has the effect of interrupting the movie’s flow and draining whatever energy Van Peebles may have developed. Elsewhere, Mario’s direction is at best uninspired and at worst amateurish. His pacing is poor, the film is visually flat, and it never comes close to conveying the vibrancy and excitement of this crew making a film by the skin of their teeth. Van Peebles was on set when all this was going on but his script is sketchy on details. He will often end scenes with lines like “somehow we managed to shoot the scene” or “somehow we got away with it”, but we never really learn how.

However, if Mario Van Peebles fails to impress as director then he partly makes up for it with his leading performance. Up to this point I’ve found Van Peebles to be a rather bland, stiff actor, but he gives a charismatic and compelling turn as his father in this movie. Mario doesn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of his father’s character either, depicting him as a man who would willingly lie, cheat and bully his crew and family to get what he wants. The most interesting aspect of Baadasssss! is the relationship between Melvin and the young Mario (well played by Khleo Thomas). Mario was thirteen at this time and was forced by Melvin to participate in an explicit sex scene with a prostitute. It’s clear that Mario still feels a little resentment to his father for this and some more insight into their relationship at this level would have been welcome. Instead Baadasssss! follows a bland triumph-against-the-system formula familiar from countless biopics.

There are pleasures in the supporting cast, especially the beautiful Joy Bryant who makes a big impression as Melvin’s secretary, a woman who makes an audition from every entrance. TK Carter captures the mannerisms of the young Bill Cosby, Rainn Wilson is enjoyable as Melvin’s stoned friend/producer Bill Harris and there is a bizarre cameo from Adam West. Occasionally, something in Baadasssss! will spark, and there is some fine dialogue in Mario‘s script (“Is this something negative, Priscilla? Because if it's negative, I can't even deal with it right now. I'm a broke, pissed off nigger from Chicago, and I'm down to my last cigar“), but too much of the film feels superficial and ordinary.

Clearly, Mario Van Peebles had his heart in the right place when he made Baadasssss!, but his heart has ruled his head and he fails to do justice to his father’s legacy. Mario’s film is bursting with good intentions but it is also messy, clumsy and poorly directed - he is truly his father’s son.