Melvin Van Peebles at the Sundance Film
Festival in Utah in 2004; pictured in July 1965 (first photo: WireImage; second
photo: Melvin Van Peebles/Breakfast at Noho/NYC)
He is a man of many passions. He has accomplished more than most of us
will in two lifetimes. Melvin Van Peebles will be 75 this summer, and in
the words of McFadden & Whitehead, there ain't no stoppin' him now. He's
on the move -- well, on this particular February morning -- he's actually
sitting (or standing) still, enjoying a day off from making his upcoming film
"Confessions Of An Ex-Doofus Mutha". The Popcorn Reel's editor spoke via
telephone with him in New York City and found him in hearty spirits as he spoke.
"San Francisco, da, da, da . . . ", Melvin Van Peebles intones cheerily, then
launches into a story about his days in the City By The Bay, where he worked as
a grip man for the city's world-famous cable cars. "The whole thing
started in San Francisco," he says. Indeed, in 1956 he settled there and
in the following year wrote the book The Big Heart, about his experiences
working on cable cars. "And a guy got on the cable car and said, 'your
book, it's just like a movie!' And I said, 'shit, I'm doing a movie!'"
He laughs a robust laugh, which is contagious to his interviewer. "I'm
serious, that's exactly the way it happened," he says.
Many things in Mr. Van Peebles life have happened, and this Thursday the
feature-length 2005 documentary "How To Eat Watermelon In White Company (And
Enjoy It)" will premiere on the IFC cable television network in the United
States at 9pm Eastern U.S. time and 6pm Pacific U.S. time. The 85-minute
documentary directed by Joe Angio, is dubbed a "provocative portrait of maverick
filmmaker . . . a true American original" and is showing as part of the
Independent Film Channel's celebration of Black History Month, an 80-year-old
tradition each month of February in the United States. The documentary
title alone is provocative, and some people may have trouble saying the entire
title, or saying the whole title without feeling uncomfortable. The
documentary focuses on the director's life and Mr. Van Peebles' sheer force of
will to win -- and win his way, on his terms -- in spite of the obstacles and
politics of a racially hostile society. A famous 1986 quote of his can be
found in the production notes to the documentary: "Somebody once asked me,
'Melvin, how'd you get to the top?' It was simple. Nobody would let
me in at the bottom." And this reality has been the life of Melvin Van
Peebles. During the course of the interview he would reveal that nobody
"would come in with me" on any of the films or projects he would do -- and to
this very day in 2007, that has not changed. He remains puzzled as to why
-- even today with all the achievements and financial capital his films have
brought in -- people will not work with him in helping to make and produce his
feature-length movies, of which he has made seven in his career.
Still, this charismatic and intrepid lone ranger of sorts has not let others'
reticence to collaborate with him stop him from making things happen. He
has used the mantra from one of the late James Brown's songs to make it against
all odds in a hostile world: "I don't want nobody to get me nothing, I'll open
up the door and get it myself."
While Mr. Angio's documentary sheds light on this remarkably energetic and
confident man, its interviewees, such as former New York Times film critic Elvis
Mitchell and documentary filmmaker St. Clare Bourne describe as a "provocateur",
upon the raising of this question to him, Mr. Van Peebles begs to differ.
"It's a very interesting point that other people would take it that way, you
know what I mean?" He underlines his response with an illustration: "If
I'm standing on a subway and someone steps on my toe, and I say, 'get the fuck
off my toe!', they'll say I'm a militant. 'I'm not a militant, you're
standing on my toe, man!'" He reflects again on the provocateur label he
has been given in his film career. "No, I don't consider myself a
provocateur. Maybe provocative, but I'm not a provocateur."
In 1970: The director on the set of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss
Song" in Los Angeles, with crew members (Photo: Melvin Van Peebles and
Breakfast at Noho)
Few figures in 20th century American politics, entertainment and sports have
had as immense a level of confidence and success on their own terms amidst both
a fearful (and revering) white American society as the following people: Jack
Johnson (the boxer from the late 1800's and early 1900's), Malcolm X, Muhammad
Ali, and James Brown. Asked if Melvin Van Peebles, with his audacious
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" film from 1971 (more on that film below)
considers himself part of that company of figures, he gives this
food-for-thought response: "There is a word in your question that dilutes it.
You added the word, 'to succeed'. You have to define that word 'succeed'
for me. What I -- is it to succeed? -- I just want to do it for how I feel
-- I'm just expressing it how I feel. If it succeeds, of course, 'wow!,
great! wow!' . . . but the minute you start looking over your shoulder and
say, [he now does an imitation in the voice of Jimmy Stewart from the 1930's]
'well, will this succeed? I don't know?'" Breaking back into his
regular voice, he adds, "do I like it? Do I hope other people will like
it? Yes. That's how I would take it, I wouldn't throw in 'succeed' .
. . you've already sort of pinned me to a certain way . . . " He further
elaborated: "I don't want to succeed, I want to do. What you want to
do, it's already within you to do . . . success is an outside view of the
That kind of edification from Mr. Van Peebles only barely begins to illuminate
the picture of a man who was born in 1932 in the American Midwest, on the South
Side of Chicago in the state of Illinois. He has worn a million creative
hats. At the age of 21 Melvin Van Peebles was a commissioned officer in
the U.S. Air Force, serving as a navigator and bombardier on B-47s in Strategic
Air Command. In that same year of 1953 he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan
University on a combined art and ROTC scholarship with a major in English.
He traveled through Mexico two years later, working as a painter of portraits.
It was there that he met Maria, whom he married and had two children, Megan, and
Mario, his actor-director son. (He has another son, Max, from a long-time
relationship with another woman.) Melvin studied for his Ph.D. in
Astronomy at Holland's University of Amsterdam in 1959. (And it is easy to
forget that back in 1958 while working at a U.S. post office, Melvin Van Peebles
wrote and directed three short films -- "A King", "Sunlight", and "Three Pick-Up
Men for Herrick.")
Trying to get the films off the ground in the U.S. and finding no one to
distribute them, Van Peebles took off to France in 1961, where the Cinemateque
du Paris screened them. Over the span of the next six years, he worked as
a journalist, writing crime stories for the France Observateur newspaper,
was the literary editor of Hara Kiri, an illustrated weekly satirical
periodical, and wrote five novels in the French language, including La Fete a
Harlem (A Harlem Party), and La Permission (The Story of a Three-Day
Pass), about a black American enlisted officer in the military who on his
three days off in France, falls in love with a white Parisian woman he meets,
much to the chagrin and hostility of his previously friendly white male soldier
buddies. That last novel was adapted into a feature film which he wrote
and directed in 1967 entitled "La Permission", France's official entry, which
won that year's San Francisco Film Festival and earned Mr. Van Peebles a
three-picture deal at Columbia Pictures. The following year he moved back
to the U.S., made a spoken word and music album entitled "Brer Soul", and
followed that in 1969 with the "Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death" album
(which would later be a Broadway musical that he would direct in 1971 that would
garner seven Tony Award nominations.) After directing and writing his
second feature film "Watermelon Man", about a racist, bigoted white man who goes
to bed one night and wakes up as a black man the next morning (1970), he
launched into the filming of what would be his most highly-acclaimed and
"You bled my momma, you bled my papa . . . but you didn't bleed me". That
famous song quote is from "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song", the powerful
groundbreaking 1971 independent film directed by Melvin Van Peebles, which back
then with its $10 million-plus gross, was the most successful independent film
ever in the U.S. Mr. Van Peebles made history with the film, about a black
street hustler who single-handedly takes on the white power Establishment in the
United States -- and wins, creating a hero that blacks -- so used to be the
losing party and reflected in negative, demeaning racial stereotypes on the big
screen -- could look up to and admire. Mr. Van Peebles wrote, directed,
produced, starred in and scored the film, whose poster he stands in front of at
the film's New York City premiere in 1971. The film was released in the
U.S. with an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, which at
that time contained only white members. In response, Mr. Van Peebles would
wear a t-shirt at the time labeled, "Rated X by An All-White Jury" (below), and
he put this statement into the film's advertising campaign. At its
inception, "Sweetback" played in just two theaters in the entire United States.
And it connected with audiences in black America, and then caught on with some
white audiences, although many were repelled by the bold, singular and
"uncompromising" nature of the film. (In 2004 Mario Van Peebles directed "Baadasssss!"
about the making of his father's film.)
X rating or not, "Sweetback" does has its controversial moments, such as his
then-11-year-old son Mario in bed having sex with a clearly older-looking woman.
The film has its hot-button moments, including a sex scene where Melvin Van
Peebles' character is cheered on by a predominantly white crowd surrounding him
at a party as he has sex with a white woman. Despite these two scenes, "Sweetback"
isn't an attempt on the director's part to titillate -- the film makes
political, more so than sexual statements, and Hollywood studios, as son Mario
mentions in the documentary, would take note of "Sweetback" and its financial
triumph, and make subsequent films like "Shaft" and "Superfly" and eliminate any
political or anti-Establishment message from them. "'Sweet Sweetback' made
being a revolutionary hip," Mario would say of his father's film. The
studios later "made being a drug dealer hip," he said, giving birth to what were
known as the so-called "blaxploitation" movies of the 1970's, featuring pimping,
drug-dealing, hustling, etc. (Other films, like "Blacula", "Shaft's Big
Score", "Coffy", etc., would follow.)
Melvin Van Peebles talked about "Sweet Sweetback" and its tremendous influence
on films today. "There are some things that are just sitting there, that
are so clear my friend -- every movie now has a soundtrack and is used as a
selling tool to the movie. They didn't do that before. I invented
that." In this, he talks about plugs for his film via the soundtrack's
songs, which was better than a commercial, since Mr. Van Peebles wasn't the
richest person on the planet, he said. It was an idea he said, that was
there for the taking. Now soundtracks "are so ubiquitous". Melvin
talked about how "Shaft" was originally a story about a white detective, but
that on the success of "Sweetback" the Hollywood studio making the film stopped
pre-production and changed the detective to a black character. Stax
Records then went to Isaac Hayes, who did the Oscar-winning soundtrack for
"Shaft", and another triumph was born. It was the first time that a
soundtrack grossed more money than the movie, Mr. Van Peebles noted.
Hollywood suddenly woke up, he said. "Oh shit, we're missing a whole thing
here," he added. Today there is a more profound expansion of this concept,
as more and more rap and hip-hop artists are appearing in more American feature
films as an additional selling point.
(This and the previous photo: Melvin Van Peebles and Breakfast at Noho)
* * *
Numerous plays, musicals, television series and books later, Melvin Van
Peebles ran in the Boston Marathon in 1976, and in 1983 earned his options
trading license, becoming the first black trader on the American Stock Exchange,
which is located on Wall Street in New York City. Three years later, he
wrote Bold Money, which contained his advice about options trading for laymen.
The book was a best-seller. Mr. Van Peebles has done so much that when
watching the documentary "How To Eat Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy
It)", one gets a sense that the title, as attention-getting as it is for some,
could have been reworked to be called, "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,
And Do More Of It". The documentary covers much more ground than any story
could, which is why "How To Eat" is a chronicle of an amazing life that
There was one final question for this true renaissance giant, who seems not to
have received the credit and acclaim that he properly deserves.
Asked of all the things he has done in his life, what is the one thing that he
does best, Melvin Van Peebles replies in a hushed voice, "I better be careful
answering that. Her husband might read your article."
Originally published on February 12, 2007.