Melvin Van Peebles, champion of New Black Cinema, dies at age 89


Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker hailed as the godfather of modern black cinema and a pioneer of American independent filmmaking, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 89.

His death was announced by his son Mario Van Peebles, the actor and director.

Mr Van Peebles, a Renaissance man whose work included books, theater and music, is best known for his third feature film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which received mixed reviews when it was released in 1971, sparked intense debate and became a national hit. The hero, Sweetback, starred in a sex show in a brothel, and the film brims with explosive violence, explicit sex and just enmity against the white power structure. It was dedicated to “all the black siblings who have had enough of The Man.”

The fiercely independent legacy of Mr. Van Peebles has starred in some of the most notable black films of the past half century, from Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (2016). His death comes at a time when Black storytelling is emerging late in Hollywood.

“I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” he told The New York Times in 2010 when asked about his reputation and influence. “I do what I want to do.”

Not only did Mr. Van Peebles write, direct, and score “Sweet Sweetback’s” and star; he also raised the money to produce it. The film showed that a black director can convey a very personal vision to a wide audience. “For the first time in American cinema history, a film speaks of an unmistakably black consciousness,” wrote Sam Washington in The Chicago Sun-Times.

In addition to making films, Mr. Van Peebles published novels, both in French and English; wrote and produced two Broadway musicals at the same time; and wrote and performed spoken-word albums that many have called ancestors of rap.

Over the course of his life, he was also a cable car driver in San Francisco, portrait painter in Mexico City, street artist in Paris, stock options trader in New York, navigator of an Air Force bomber, postman, a visual artist and, by his own account, a very successful gigolo.

Mr Van Peebles famously called himself ‘the Rosa Parks of Black cinema’. Along with Gordon Parks, whose 1971 film ‘Shaft’ glorified a street-wise black detective, he was one of the first black filmmakers to reach a wide audience.

‘Sweetback’, ‘Shaft’ and countless counterfeit products released in the 1970s were a response to a new militancy among young urban black people. The cast of the films was mainly black and the music was mainly funk and soul. Racial humiliations of whites were common, as were sex, violence and criticism of capitalism and police brutality. Many showed a smooth coolness. Some romanticized bandits.

Some critics complained that the genre perpetuated racist myths and stereotypes. After “Super Fly” – the story of a cocaine dealer directed by Mr. Parks’ son Gordon Jr. – was released, the term “blaxploitation” (a combination of “Black” and “exploitation”) became widely used. The NAACP, along with other civil rights groups, has formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation.

In a 1972 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Van Peebles countered that he challenged the “false black images” that white people used “to confuse, empty and colonize our minds.”

Melvin Van Peebles was born on the south side of Chicago on August 21, 1932. Van was originally his middle name; he later made it part of his surname.

The son of a tailor, he grew up in Phoenix, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He attended the historically black West Virginia State College (now university) before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he joined the ROTC and majored in English Literature.

After graduating in 1954 at the age of 20, he joined the Air Force and became a navigator on a B-47 bomber for three years. While he was in service he married Maria Marx, a German actress.

After his discharge, Mr. Van Peebles could not be hired by a commercial airline, so the newlyweds went to Mexico City, where their son Mario was born. They later had a daughter, Megan, who died in 2006. Besides Mario, he leaves behind another son, Max; a daughter, Marguerite Van Peebles; and 11 grandchildren.

Mr. Van Peebles painted portraits in Mexico before moving to San Francisco, where he worked at the post office and rode cable cars. The cable car experience inspired his first book, “The Big Heart” (1957).

He made several short films in San Francisco and then moved to Hollywood to pursue his cinematic dream. But the only job he could find there was that of an elevator operator.

He emigrated to the Netherlands, studied astronomy – a personal fascination – at the University of Amsterdam and acting at the National Theater. His marriage ended in divorce and he hitchhiked to Paris. He sang for coins outside theaters, wrote crime magazine articles, and helped edit a humor magazine. He lived, he later recalled, on $600 a year.

Mr. Van Peebles told People magazine in 1982 that he had supplemented this meager income by getting involved with wealthy women. “I had a lady for every day of the week,” he said. “All I had to worry about was my back giving out.”

He wrote five novels and a collection of short stories which were published in French. Several novels were also published in English, including “A Bear for the FBI” (1968). Martin Levin, review in The Times, praised it for “bringing brilliantly through the memories of a childhood in Chicago” as did the author’s.

After discovering that the French cultural authorities financed films based on works written in French, Mr Van Peebles won a grant to turn his novel “La Permission” into the film “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” (1967). It told of a black soldier who was harassed by his white comrades because he had a white girlfriend.

The film premiered at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, where it won the Critics’ Choice Award. Columbia Pictures then hired him to direct ‘Watermelon Man’ (1970), a satirical comedy about a white bigot, played by Godfrey Cambridge, who turns into a black man.

Columbia wanted Mr. Van Peebles to shoot alternate endings—one in which the main character becomes a black militant, and another in which he discovers it was all a dream. Mr Van Peebles said he “forgot” to shoot the second ending.

Disliked working for a studio, he wanted to become an independent filmmaker. To earn “Sweetback” for $500,000, he combined his $70,000 savings with loans, employed a non-union crew, and persuaded a film lab to lend him credit.

The plot of the film is about a man who attacks two corrupt police officers and then flees to Mexico as a fugitive, vowing to return and “collect some dues.” Only two theaters, in Detroit and Atlanta, were initially scheduled to show the film, but it caught fire and outperformed “Love Story” for several weeks. The US box office crossed $15 million (about $100 million in today’s money), a bonanza for an independent film at the time.

The success of the film enabled Mr. Van Peebles to perform a musical he wrote on Broadway in 1971, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” with an initial personal investment of $150,000. The show was largely a dramatization of several albums he made in the late 1960s that have been called a precursor to rap music, as his words were spoken rather than sung and its theme dealt with the inner lives of the dispossessed. Junkies, prostitutes and scammers told their stories.

Advance sales were close to zero and reviews were lukewarm, so Mr. Van Peebles personally promoted the show to black churches and fraternal groups within a 200-mile radius. Their members came by busload.

The success of “Natural Death” led him to open a second Broadway show he had written in May 1972, “Don’t Play Us Cheap!”. So late in the season, he started a new production — not to mention herding two Broadway shows. enterprises at once – was called madness. But both made money.

The new show was just as carefree as the first, and received rave reviews. Clive Barnes of The Times called it “a sprawling, rambunctious, good-hearted show.” It was made into a movie in 1973.

Mr. Van Peebles received Tony Award nominations for Best Book and Best Original Score for “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” as well as a Drama Desk award for Most Promising Book. “Don’t play us cheap!” earned him a Tony nomination for best book.

A “Natural Death” revival, co-hosted by Mario Van Peebles and directed by Kenny Leon, is slated to hit Broadway next year.

Mr. Van Peebles went on to act in films and on television and occasionally direct, sometimes collaborating with his son Mario. In a gallery in Manhattan, he exhibited paintings and mixed-media works he had created. He wrote Off Broadway plays. He started a band called Melvin Van Peebles with Laxative.

His business acumen drew almost as much commentary as his artistic gifts. He once called himself ‘a one-man conglomerate’.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Van Peebles was one of the few black options traders on the American Stock Exchange — “closing deals, as always,” he said. He wrote a book about it: “Bold Money: How to Get Rich in the Options Market” (1986).

In his eighties, Mr. Van Peebles—easily identified by his flowing white beard and rarely without a soggy, occasional cigar—running for sports five times a week and sounding as hot-tempered as ever. He joked that he wouldn’t be recognized for his body of work until he got weaker.

“Right now I’m a bit too dangerous,” he said in 2013. “I intend to remain dangerous.”

Jordan Allen contributed to the reporting.

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