By Stephanie Zacharek
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The real Melvin Van Peebles shows up just once in Baadasssss!, a fictionalized account of his making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, and it's at the film's end; he sits silent, grinning, clutching his ever-present cigar. But he's all over this movie, in which his son Mario plays Melvin and plays Melvin playing Sweetback. Mario wrote and directed, too, and cast a kid, Khleo Thomas (Holes), to play the young Mario, who actually appeared in the original as the teenaged Sweetback, ya dig? But, no, this isn't a head-trip therapy session in which son pats Daddy on the back while kicking him in the junk; Mario, sporting his father's mustache and marble-slab torso, doesn't make Melvin look like a saint, but a sinner only out of necessity, who fought like hell to make a movie -- in which a black man kills a white cop and lives -- but found only cranks and crazies to fund his endeavor. Mario has issues to work out, among them being asked to humiliatingly pop his cinematic cherry when he was a mere thirteen in Sweet Sweetback, but his own movie plays like a love letter written with giant hearts dotting the epithets.
Baadasssss!is as frantic and frenzied as its source material, Melvin's making-of journal, published in '71. Father even made son pay for the rights to the book, reminding the kid who's still the boss. The book, long out of print but said to be resurfacing soon, was less a filmmaker's how-to than a revolutionary's how-come. "I wanted a victorious film," Melvin wrote, "a film where niggers could walk out tall instead of avoiding each other's eyes, looking once again like they'd had it." The book was impressionistic and idealistic, like some fever dream written in blood, semen and sweat; it begins with Melvin masturbating in the Mojave Desert for inspiration, includes the complete screenplay and concludes with the movie's opening in Detroit and Atlanta, where it smashed box-office records on its way to becoming one of the most successful indie films of all time.
Mario keeps the chronology intact and stays true to his pop's manifesto. He alters a few things -- the movie opens with Melvin and a young Mario on a motorcycle in the desert, presumably because the image of son playing Dad playing with his pecker might have been a touch too much -- and gives it more structure, but the movie doesn't lack for the book's rush of adrenaline and arrogance. Mario manages the almost impossible in just the first fifteen minutes: He puts us in Melvin's head as he scribbles the Sweet Sweetbackscreenplay on a yellow legal pad. A sweaty, shirtless Melvin paces his tiny blue room, does battle with his own muse (Mario, decked out in Sweetback's black duds and matching fedora), even walks through the mirror and into the ghetto neighborhood that served as the '71 film's location. He's not just writing; he's wandering the wasteland, gathering material and maybe even losing a little bit of his mind.
Baadasssss!also borrows much from Melvin's sneering 1998 documentary Classified X, in which the filmmaker chronicled the horrific history of blacks in film; Mario opens his movie with footage of black actors in whiteface and cartoon Sambos and scenes of a white doctor cajoling a handicapped black soldier to get out of bed by hurling racial epithets at him. Mario, as Melvin, says in the opening moments of Baadasssss! that his film would star "not some boogie or clown, like they always do, but a real street brother gettin' the man's foot out his ass." His producer Howie (Saul Rubinek) is aghast at the suggestion that a studio would let Melvin make a "ghetto Western" in which a brother kills a cop and escapes. Even thirteen-year-old Mario doesn't understand, asking his father, "Who's gonna wanna see that? Black guys always die in the end."
Mario depicts his pop's troubles in getting Sweetbackmade: the begging of money from sleazo producers (one of whom is played by Batman's Adam West as the king of queens), the difficulties of keeping a multi-culti crew from turning on each other, the troubles of finding a distributor when the movie was in the can. Melvin, sporting an eye patch by film's end after editing-room strains both physical and mental, comes off less as a director of a movie than the dictator of a roaming continent; he tolerates nothing, not even his own son's need for attention and affection. Though you know it will end in eventual triumph, with the breaking of records and the making of black movie heroes, you're still sucked into the struggle. Mario lays it out there like a mystery, a whodunit ode to his old man. And it's touching, too, never more so than when Mario calls Melvin "Dad" for the first time, bringing a rare smile to a grimacing face.
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