Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Mario Van Peebles’ performance as his own father, Melvin Van Peebles, in Baadasssss!
I was blown away the first time I watched Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). I was under the impression that it would be an exploitation movie, as it’s widely regarded as the first Blaxploitation film. But that didn’t really describe what I had just experienced. Melvin Van Peebles‘ film isn’t fun, pulpy escapism but a scathing indictment of police brutality and the thumb that white supremacy, or “The Man,” has over people of color. With a sense of danger and vérité realness, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an uncomfortable film to watch, and that’s clearly by design. Van Peebles wanted to force audiences to face the hard truths about the world he lived in. And based on the film’s legacy, he succeeded in conveying that message.
What Mario Van Peebles wanted to do with his quasi-docudrama-meets-biopic Baadasssss! (2003) was show the struggles his father faced in producing an independently financed film centered on Black communities.
In the early 1970s, Black directors weren’t given the opportunity to make a film that spoke directly to the Black experience, partly because white studio executives didn’t believe in Black audiences. That’s one reason why Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is considered the start of Blaxploitation cinema, despite not really bearing the hallmarks of the genre. The film proved to these white executives that there were audiences hungry for stories centered on people of color, but with the executives driving the stories, other early Blaxploitation films felt like sanitized versions of what Melvin Van Peebles had created with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. They are films predominantly made for white audiences, not for the communities they were meant to represent.
I genuinely think Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is high art, but there is an uncomfortable sticking point in the film that’s always stopped me from constantly recommending it. In the film, thirteen-year-old Mario Van Peebles makes his screen debut as the young version of the title character (played by Melvin Van Peebles in the rest of the film). We’re introduced to him in a brothel the moment he loses his virginity and receives his namesake. Because the film has this sense of gritty realism, knowing that we are watching an underaged young man be subjected to a graphic sex scene casts a sour note over the film, no matter how important and impactful it is.
But that’s exactly why Mario Van Peebles’ performance as his own father in Baadassss! is so intriguing: we watch him directly engage with his past in a profound way. Mario channels Melvin to answer a question that may have never been asked: how did he feel being a part of his father’s film? Like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Baadasssss! doesn’t shy away from hard truths. Not only about the trials of a Black filmmaker producing an important piece of cinema in the years following the Civil Rights movement, but also about the fractured relationship that can exist between a son and his headstrong artist father who rarely explained the importance of what he was attempting to accomplish with his work. Or, as Mario Van Peebles puts it in a 2004 interview with Filmmaker magazine, “He involved us in the battle without explaining the war.”
Mario Van Peebles structures his performance to exemplify the struggles his father endured producing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song without lionizing him as some provocateur artist. He wants to plainly show an honest depiction of his father, warts and all.
In one scene, we watch Mario as Melvin as an energetic cheerleader for his cast and crew, only for him to turn around in the next scene to viciously snap at his children. These moments are jarring and feel incongruous with the person we are rooting for, but it’s purposeful. Mario’s performance allows us to see behind the curtain how Melvin Van Peebles balanced his fiery passions with his responsibility as a father. Mario shows how Melvin may have been a genius, but he was still human, filled with mistakes and regrets. The performance comes to embody the full spectrum of his father’s winning personality without shying away from Melvin’s own inner failings.
In the caustic moments between father and son, Mario Van Peebles focuses the camera on Khleo Thomas, the actor in Baadassss! portraying the younger version of himself, so the audience can sense how uncomfortable he felt being in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The anxiety we see in Thomas’ eyes feeds into Mario Van Peebles’ performance as his father. We watch Mario as Melvin recognizing his son’s discomfort with a heartbreaking grimace, showing the audience that Melvin understood how his dictatorial control over his films could deeply affect his family.
Despite the film being a way for Mario Van Peebles to grapple with his own complicated feelings about being a pawn in his father’s creative process, he doesn’t demonize Melvin. He plays him with considerable empathy by showing how Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t a vehicle for his father’s ego. It was a political statement he felt must be made to further Black representation in film. Mario Van Peebles’ performance may let us hate the way his father treated his family, but it also allows us to sympathize with his fight to get Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song released.
In the final act of Baadasssss!, Mario as Melvin approaches a pair of movie theater owners about getting Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song shown in their cinema. He makes a bet with them that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song will be a bigger success as a standalone release, rather than the final picture in a triple feature. The duo likes his gumption, so they take his bet and the character of Melvin Van Peebles starts a word-of-mouth marketing campaign for the debut, with radio appearances and promotional merchandise.
But then when the premiere date comes, the theater is a ghost town. Melvin sneaks into the back of the house to watch the paltry audience’s reaction and is dismayed when a Black Panther member storms out of the cinema. In the role, Mario Van Peebles effortlessly captures how crestfallen his father felt in this moment to show how Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t just a movie for him. It was a testament to his very core beliefs. We can’t help but look into the stricken face of Mario’s Melvin and feel his anguish as the community he made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for seemed to shun his film.
In other movies centered on demanding directors striving for their artistic vision, like The Disaster Artist, actors can fall into the trap of prejudging their character. They build their performance solely around a director’s mythic ego, rather than on the actual person. This can easily turn a performance into a caricature, rather than a nuanced depiction of the emotional complexities that comprise the creative process.
Mario Van Peebles centers his performance not on Melvin the prolific firebrand who ignited a generation of films and filmmakers but on who his father really was behind his art. As Mario’s Melvin sits in the empty theater after the first screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song finishes, we get to see the vulnerability that was always hiding just below the surface of his father’s confident swagger. It’s what underpins the film’s final moments as Mario’s Melvin feels destroyed, believing the work he created was all for nothing.
Naturally, it wasn’t all for nothing. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would go on to become a seminal film in Black cinema, grossing over $15 million at the box office and effectively kicking off both the Blaxploitation genre and the independent filmmaking movement. As Melvin Van Peebles told Electric Sheep magazine in 2007, “Because of the fixation on race, we often overlook the fact that Sweetback was the beginning of independent film, not just Black independent film. So I’m the godfather of those films as well as The Blair Witch Project or Motorcycle Diaries. I made those things possible too.”
Mario Van Peebles’ performance as his father in Baadasssss! allowed him to exorcise some demons about his experience being a part of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but it’s unique because it isn’t an indictment of what his father did to him. He isn’t trying to vilify Melvin Van Peebles; he’s trying to simply convey the reasons why his father did what he did to get his vision to the screen. Mario Van Peebles uses his performance to understand and appreciate his father in a deeper way. Not as some larger-than-life creative force that changed the cinematic landscape, but as an artist simply trying to express himself in the only way he knew how.