in The Vault

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, that’s possibly the best title for a movie ever conceived. Melvin Van Peebles’ bizarrely titled Urban art-film is not your typical blaxploitation film. Whereas I criticized Shaft for still feeling like a reflection of white Hollywood, Sweetback is anything but. The film’s opening text sums it up perfectly: “This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man.” I admire Sweetback’s balls. As for the actual craft behind the film, Sweetback leaves a lot to be desired.

The film begins in a dream-like past where a starving young boy (Mario Van Peebles) is taken in by a group of prostitutes. While working at the brothel the boy loses his virginity and is named “Sweetback” for his superior boning abilities. As an adult (Melvin Van Peebles), Sweetback performs sex shows at the brothel in front of a rowdy audience. Though the show is just him taking off all of his clothes and then boning a woman.

The cops show up at one of Sweetback’s boning performances in need of suspect for a recent murder in the black community. For some reason they need a suspect to take off pressure from the black community, I think. The plan is to arrest Sweetback and then let him go a few days later for a lack of evidence. Damn pigs, why must they make this movie so confusing? The cops take in Sweetback, but after Sweetback sees the cops beating another black man he fights back and escapes. The rest of the movie follows Sweetback as he heads for the Mexican border and has weird voices and imagery that flash through his head.

The premise is inventive but the presentation is too abstract. I had no idea that Melvin Van Peebles passion project was going to be so artsy. The message about minorities being treated like pawns in a white legal system gives the film such a brutally honest cadence. It’s Peebles use of avant-garde montages and psychedelic imagery that makes the film feel too busy. I can only wonder if there were any drugs involved because the film definitely has that sixties/seventies acid trip kind of feel.

Additionally, I can’t help but get the feel of Peebles’ ego oozing out of every orifice of Sweetback. Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed music, and starred in the film. Not only that but his character is a guy with a giant shlong that everyone in the black community is obsessed with. It kind of downplays the community feel that the film goes out of its way to establish. The film claims to star “The Black Community” but few characters are memorable or well played. Nor does Peebles do much with the mostly mute Sweetback, well, aside from boning.

There’s definitely a warm, home-movie vibe to Sweetback. As if Peebles only wanted the involvement of people in his community and no snobby Hollywood types. That’s admirable, but the film suffers in the technical department for the same reason. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was clearly a labor of love overflowing with great ideas but it desperately lacks focus and organization. Although bonus points go to a scene where the Hell’s Angels challenge Sweetback to a duel of his choice. He selects a boning contest. He wins.