Melvin Van Peebles, a multi-hyphenate artist (director, writer, composer, actor, and author), died at the age of 89. The news was relayed on behalf of the entire Van Peebles family by The Criterion Collection and Janus Films on Wednesday. On September 21, the “giant of American cinema” died at home with his family.
With his uncensored expression of Black consciousness and powerful style, Van Peebles offered American independent cinema exactly what it needed, when it needed it most: an explosive shake-up. The anarchic 1971 blaxploitation classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” undeniably changed the course of American cinema, and it was just one part of a remarkable career that included forays into European arthouse cinema (“The Story of a Three Day Pass”), Hollywood comedy (“Watermelon Man”), Broadway productions (“Don’t Play Us Cheap”), novels, and performances. He was a revolutionary artist whose cutting social commentary, unashamed radicalism, and vision provided a model for Black artistic independence.
Van Peebles was born in Chicago in 1932, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B.A. in literature, and entered the Air Force less than two weeks afterwards, serving for nearly four years. His early work, which included the book “The Big Heart,” encouraged him to pursue a career in filmmaking. In 1957, he released his debut short film, “Pickup Men for Herrick,” which was rapidly followed by others. Van Peebles’ ambition for feature filmmaking was first denied by Hollywood, but his globetrotting nature earned him more followers and honors around the world.
He relocated to France in the early 1960s, where he proceeded to write, make films, and even release his debut album. “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” his debut feature film, received an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and drew the attention of Hollywood executives. With the Columbia Pictures picture “Watermelon Man,” he made his studio debut in 1970.
His next film was the ground-breaking “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which he directed, written, edited, created the score, and even directed the marketing campaign on his own dime. The picture was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2020 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it helped spark the blaxploitation craze in American cinema.
Even this week, the renowned inventor is being honored, as the New York Picture Festival will present a 50th-anniversary screening of his seminal film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” this weekend. Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, a Criterion Collection box set, will be released next week, and his play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” will be revived on Broadway next year.
Mario Van Peebles, his son, and close creative collaborator, said in a statement following his father’s death, “Dad knew that Black images matter.” What was a movie worth if a picture was worth a thousand words? We want to be the successful people we see, thus we must consider ourselves as free. True emancipation did not include adopting the mindset of the colonizers. It meant appreciating everyone’s power, beauty, and interconnectedness.”