Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

August 22nd, 2009 by Perfesser Deviant

Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song   sweet sweetback poster 2 66x120 reviews drama action Director: Melvin Van Peebles
Writer: Melvin Van Peebles
Release Year: 1971

Who’s The Man?

Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles), who seems to be some sort of live sex performer, one day pisses off The Man and sparks off a firestorm of police violence. The rest of this film is nothing more than an extended chase as Sweetback has to keep eluding the police as he tries to find a safe haven…

(Spoilers follow…)

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The character of Sweetback is sorely underdeveloped. He has very few lines in this film, and so most of what we know about him comes from watching him act and react to the situations that he’s placed in. His past is rather sordid as he seems to have started life as a young man working in a brothel for pimp Beetle (Simon Chuckster). His first sexual experience, with a hooker – in a scene that today would seem abusive as the director’s son, naked, writhes atop a naked adult woman – earned him his nickname. As Sweetback grew up, he seemed to stay at the brothel and became a sex performer for the enjoyment of mixed audiences. Beyond this we know little about him, except that one day he got tired of seeing the white police beating a fellow black man – peaceful protester Muu Muu (Hubert Scales) – and fought back, taking the police by surprise. While this is not, in and of itself, particularly surprising, because we know so little about Sweetback as a person his struggle is less involving than it ought to be.

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Please don't answer the door like that.

This film has the trappings of an epic tale of heroism, including all the limitations typically found therein. Such an epic hero exists more as a symbol than as a character, and is only interesting so long as we can identify with his struggle, or, at least, find his quest itself interesting. Since all that Sweetback manages to do is get a bunch of innocent people hurt and killed on his quest for freedom, he is much less interesting than he might otherwise be. This plays more like a tale of a man trying to escape punishment from a system that, while unjust, still manages to hold society together; that is, an antihero in the sense that he’s a criminal even if he had a good reason to become one. The problem is when he attacked the police who were beating a man who only sought to use his First Amendment rights, he was heroic, but, when he continued to fight and kill police, he became less a hero and more a criminal.

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Police brutality!

In addition to the early scene with with its sexual depiction of a child with an adult woman, this film has a number of very strange sequences. Numerous scenes of Sweetback having sex with various women, none of whom seem to mind is attention, occur at various points in the film. There’s also the peculiar scene that takes place in the black church, where it seems that the pastor has been doing some kind of shady activity with Sweetback, but nothing comes of it. There’s the interesting scene in which Sweetback pays a homeless man five dollars to switch clothing with him to evade the police; since the police were none too shy about shooting, having a homeless man wear his clothing was almost a death sentence, but Sweetback seems to pay it no mind. There was the weird scene of Sweetback peeing on the ground and then rubbing the urine-soaked soil onto his wound like a poultice. Finally, there was the scene of him killing and eating a lizard on camera and the subsequent off-camera killing of police dogs, presumably with his bare hands. These odd scenes, and others, turn the film into a sort of freak show rather than the intended epic journey.

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Was it worth it?

The style of this movie shows a sort of film school self-awareness that is quite distracting and even off-putting. Numerous techniques are used to make the story visually interesting, from psychedelic imagery to epic long shots to furtive close-ups. As much fun as the film is to look at, the story is so simple that there’s very little to think about beyond the base enjoyment of the action. This paucity of substance is also reflected in the extremely repetitive score that sounds like nothing more than some jazz record on a loop. Historically, this was the film that many regard as the first in the blaxploitation genre, but that doesn’t make it good. It is an early example of a film made primarily by black filmmakers for black audiences, but it’s so primitive in terms of narrative and style that there is little more than the imagery to recommend it. Still, it was a crossover success and showed Hollywood that there was an audience for this sort of film.

Maybe the problem is that I’m a white guy and therefore just don’t get it. Of course, it could also be the fact that I’m looking at this film nearly 40 years later, and so the level of police violence that seems so over the top – like the scene in which police deafen Beetle with gunshots next to each of his ears – could actually have been quite realistic for the time. Either way, this film has not aged well, and is best looked at as a relic rather than as entertainment.

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