Hostage Pick: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Good day all,

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve had the chance to write, but I’ve been focusing a lot of energy toward a new project. It’s a self-help/support text about the healing power of acceptance; I’m really hoping for an endorsement by Oprah so she can later scream me out as a liar. But that is neither here nor there, or that other place, because the lady loosened the leash and I chose a Blaxploitation classic. Okay, maybe the lady has good taste and agreed to the choice, but this flick is still a beauty. The premise is that a brother (I have to write it that way, I’m a cracker) gets sick and tired of taking the man’s shit and makes a bold, considered decision the generally tear that mother down. This movie set the tone for the entire genre, much like Double Indemnity did for Noir, and has a story better than the film surrounding its birth.

This film is really the passion/obsession project of Melvin Van Peebles and was done entirely on his dime. The man spent every penny he had, could scrounge or cheat someone out of to realize his vision of a fed-up motherfucker (again, white). Melvin’s exploited, child labourer son Mario does a much better job of telling the story than I can in the spectacular film Baadasssss!. The point is that this film became a rallying point for the black community at a time when the hope of the Sixties was fading into the disillusionment of the Seventies. The film opens with a medieval quote basically saying “I don’t condone the shit in this movie, but it reflects how pissed off people are getting”, absolving himself of the violent catharsis to come (see honey, I’m smart too). I don’t care about that shit, it’s fun in a way that I can only break down in honour of a new fave: The Good,The Bad, The Weird.

The Good

The general look and feel of the movie is very real. It’s the type of flick that the snooty types will argue is either gritty or cheap (depending which side of their ass they’re talking out of, ZING). The slang is almost rhythmic and the message is sharp. You believe this guy is bad and he seems to garner respect from people in the community (he’s kind of a big deal). I can see a lot of respect for this movie in Black Dynamite, the best satire of the last twenty years, in that it nails the tone while gently nudging the weaknesses. The music is flat-out insane, due to the fact that a member of a little group called Earth, Wind and Fire was dating Melvin’s secretary before they hit it big. They ended up doing the music for peanuts and, allegedly, were never paid.  The score really pulls the action along and gives the movie an authentic vibe. It is powerful to see a community rally around this anti-hero that has finally taken a stand, but I can’t jump right into the pool. I respect the fact that the film takes a very clear and powerful stance against the institutionalized racism of the time, though I don’t agree with the violence attached to the statement. I feel very much the way about the statement as I do about the music of The Coup and Boots Riley (who looks suspiciously like Undercover Brother, right?); I disagree with the call for violent revolution and killing cops, but I have never experienced police officers that get off exuding their authority over minorities because I am, again, white (and male, I neva forgets tha ladies). If I had experienced racism to the extent they have I might call for violence myself. Regardless, this flick deserves its place among the greats of Blaxploitation and deserves your looking balls.

The Bad

The first thing is that the editing of the spectacular music is pretty terrible. The shoestring budget forced Peebles to have long montages to fill time, but anyone that gave Peebles  twenty bucks could get in the flick (money was that tight). The result is that the awesome music gets randomly interrupted by really rough cuts to a line or two of dialogue. It pulls you out of the vibe. It also leads to some terrible actors ending up on screen. The direction is solid, but it just looks cheap and rushed at times. Likewise, some of the editing is stellar while others are simply rough. Oh yeah, there isn’t really a story. Sweetback gets taken in by the man and can’t stand to watch the cops take a “let’s beat up a black guy” break on the way back to the station. The hero saves the victim and is forced to run from the angry, white establishment response to his audacity. That is another problem: this thing is about as ham-fisted as Rush Limbaugh (seriously, screw that fat, drug addict, racist). All white people are evil except for bikers, bikers seem to be okay. Even our hero starts out as a performer in an underground, minstrel style sex show. Granted, this is while he is still in the man’s psychological prison, but is an odd profession for a potential activist to have (imagine finding out Malcolm X did porn under the name Big Red McCool).  The flaws, and those of the films like it, are, again, wonderfully pointed out in Black Dynamite (seriously, go see that if you haven’t). It’s bad, but in the best way.

The Weird

The opening scene of the movie is a young man being dropped off by his blind mother at a brothel. I’m not sure if the blind woman was also a ho and got knocked up, or if she just lived in the neighbourhood and figured brothel was the best spot to abandon her child. The second scene is of an older prostitute luring a twelve year old Sweetback into her room and essentially raping him. It gets weirder when you consider that the actor playing young Sweetback is Melvin’s twelve year old son Mario (New Jack City, Nino Brown motherfucker) sprawled on top of the aged courtesan. The rumour is young Mario lost his virginity on camera, near to against his will, for the authenticity of the moment (did we mention Melvin was a little obsessed with this flick, like working to physical exhaustion). That’s the other thing. Sweetback has sex for a living, and all the ladies he bangs scream and quake with pleasure, but his technique is lying motionless on top of the lucky lady, missionary position. I tried that shit after seeing the flick and the lady looked at me like I had farted. This flick toes a line between artistic cultural statement and cheap schizophrenic mess, and I really think it reflects Melvin’s decaying sanity to finish it.

The result was a loyal cult following that overcame the challenge of the fact that almost no theatre would show it. A black dude killing a bunch of whit cops was pretty racy in 1971 and the black community ate it up. The conventions of the film are now gospel to the genre and it is a great example of a passion project, but the flaws are ample. Until the next time my friends, set the bar high and work yourself to death to achieve (or don’t, that’s my play).

The Hostage

~ by stew37 on September 30, 2011.

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