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BAADASSSSS!

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mario van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Nia Long, Paul Rodriguez, Khleo Thomas, Rainn Wilson
Director:  Mario van Peebles
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  September 14, 2004

“You bled my mama…you bled my papa…

You WON’T BLEED ME.”

Film ****

Once upon a time, Melvin van Peebles was one of only two African American directors on the payroll of a major studio.  It was, at that point in history, a major coup, and he could have settled in comfortably to his career, played it financially safe, enjoyed the fruits of his labor, never rocked the boat, and never bucked the establishment.

But he had a vision; one that would have his community depicted on the big screen as they really were:  proud, fearless, and fed up.  With the radical wave of change brought about in the late 60s, he saw a black man who was no longer trying to doll up and fit into a white man’s world.  This man was no longer asking for a piece of the pie…he was ready to carve out his own slice in his own way.

His vision would be called a folly, a reckless gamble, an irresponsibly blind jump into untested waters…but eventually, it would also be called a revolution, a wake-up call, and invariably, a huge success.

That’s the cultural history of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in a nutshell, but when his son Mario decided to take his father’s book and his story and bring it to celluloid, his focus was on the history in the making:  the story of a film that came about solely because of his father’s faith and stubbornness, his singularity of vision, and his belief that nothing…not lack of money, lack of time, nor lack of studio interest…could stop him.

Baadasssss is in some ways Mario’s love letter to his father, but it’s one of tough love; i.e., he loved his dad enough to tell his story truthfully, with all the proud and not-so-proud details intact.  He co-penned the screenplay, directed, and even stepped into his dad’s shoes in front of the camera in a whirlwind independent film project that mirrored some of Melvin’s own experiences.  It was shot in 18 days, and the short time helped fill every frame with urgency.  When you see Melvin’s world closing in on him as he tries to complete the movie with time, money and chances for success running out, the experience is just as real for you as it is for him.

After the success of his comedy Watermelon Man, Melvin could have charted a safe course of success through the waters of Hollywood.  But his vision led him in a direction no one in the business was ready for:  that of a street brother turned revolutionary who would turn the table on crooked cops, stand up to a racist establishment, and most importantly, live to fight another day.

But getting financing for such a radical product proved impossible.  So he put his own money on the line, hoping that somewhere along the course of the shoot, the money people would start to understand his vision and want a piece of it.  It never happened.  Shooting time constricted, debts expanded, and Melvin, who had his hands full writing, directing and acting, was bombarded with a new headache almost every step of the way.

He had to deal with scorn and disapproval when he decided to cast his then 13 year old son Mario (Thomas) in an early sex scene.  He had to face a near production-ending crisis when members of his crew were unjustly jailed for a weekend.  He had to get his final shot guerilla style, letting real fire trucks show up and trying to scratch out a climactic sequence on the fly.  But he also made history with a crew of mixed ethnicity with half of them coming from third world backgrounds.  The constant threat of union action became just one other sword of Damocles hanging over his head.

Then there was the post production, where a promising band with a strange name (I’ll let you discover who it is for yourself) pitched in with the music, and where the strain of cutting the picture almost cost Melvin sight in his left eye.  And if that wasn’t enough, there was selling the movie with no named stars, no studio distribution, and an X rating to boot (van Peebles refused to submit his film to an all white jury for a rating).  At the end of the day, there was just the man, his stubborn but weakening confidence, and a couple of cans of film that represented every last bit of bread he had in the world.

But then…well, you know the story, I’m sure.  But that doesn’t make it any less enthralling.  The streets of life are cluttered with the stories of those who risked it all for what they believed in and couldn’t make it all come together in the end.  The story of Melvin and Sweet Sweetback is one that just seems a little more urgent, a little more intense, and a whole lot more inspiring.  Yes, he could have played it safe, lived well, and been another secure cog in the studio machinery.  But Melvin van Peebles put everything he had and everything he was on the line, and became an indelible legend instead.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  Some of the early cinematic images that show the way black people were depicted in cinema throughout the years can also be seen in the Melvin van Peebles hosted documentary Classified X.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  Keep an eye out for classic TV stars Adam West and Sally Struthers in small roles!

Video ****

Wow…what a knockout!  This anamorphic transfer from Columbia Tri Star is one of the year’s best by faithfully replicating for DVD Mario van Peebles’ vision, which was filled with style, extreme colors, a playful hodgepodge of film stocks and more to create a true 70s experience.  The visual style is half the fun of the movie, and this offering definitely doesn’t bleed.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is equally striking, with plenty of the hard thumping and grooving sounds of 70 soul punctuating the action and keeping the .1 channel pulsing.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, dynamic range is strong, and bigger sequences keep the rear channels rolling throughout.  Superbly done.

Features ****

How’s this for a treat…a commentary track with one of cinema’s greatest father and son duos, Melvin and Mario van Peebles?  It’s a wonderful listen, filled with plenty of good stories and recollections, as both artists openly share their individual experiences of making a low budget independent film with tight money and time constraints!

A Q&A with Melvin is another sweet offering for film fans, as the legendary director talks openly and comfortably about some of his memories in front of an appreciative audience.  A featurette titled “The Birth of Black Cinema” addresses some of both the Sweetback and the Baadasssss experiences, while another one showcases the premiere of the latter.  A poster exploration gallery and plenty of trailers (for this and other Columbia Tri Star offerings) round out the disc.

Summary:

In my humble opinion, Baadasssss finally completes a kind of divine trinity of great movies about making movies along with Truffaut’s Day for Night and Fellini’s 8 ˝.  Yes, it really is that good.  Now that one of the year’s best films is on one of the year’s best DVD offerings, you shouldn’t miss your chance to experience how Melvin took it to The Man and altered the course of cinema for all time.

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