Edutainment at Its Best

Mario Van Peebles takes a look at the making of his father's not-so-classic 'Sweetback'

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles left behind a promising career in mainstream cinema because he wanted to get The Man's foot out of his ass, where, he believed, it had been residing for some time, causing him considerable discomfort.

Instead of making studio pictures, he decided to essentially invent independent black cinema by writing, directing and starring in Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. This proved to be just the Preparation H needed to reduce the inflammation that The Man's foot had caused, and Van Peebles went on to make such classics as Don't Play Us Cheap and Greased Lightning.

OK, not exactly classics. And Sweetback is not exactly the most watchable film ever made. Other than some enticing nudity and a great soundtrack, it stands as one of the more boring movies of the '70s, an era that also produced Heaven's Gate and THX 1138, films that make movie watching an endurance contest, and then attempt to make that contest unwinnable.

Still, what Sweetback has is not so much aesthetic interest as historical interest. And thus it seems ripe for just the treatment it gets in Baadasssss! wherein Mario Van Peebles, Melvin's son and the director of Posse, Panther and A Bunch of Movies That They Couldn't Even Release Direct to Video, tells the story of the making of Sweetback, a story which is so much more interesting than Sweetback that it makes me wonder why Van Peebles pere didn't just turn the camera on himself while making his movie.

If he had done so, he would have had some great footage of himself getting it on with a variety of early '70s hippie hotties, taking drugs with white people, forcing his 10-year-old son to do an on-screen sex scene and generally losing it while mortgaging his future in the name of Art.

Or at least that's what Baadasssss! would have us believe. Combining drama, documentary and everyone's favorite form, docudrama, this is the quintessential movie within a movie: Not only does it feature a feature film, we get to watch people watching a movie and listen to people talk about movies. So I'm thinking: This may be a movie that only film critics, filmmakers and people with a lot of action figures will enjoy.

If you're among that select group, though, Baadasssss will certainly appeal to you. Mario Van Peebles' directing style can be a bit clunky, but the story carries the day. There's also the special weirdness of watching Van Peebles play his own father, especially in the scenes in which he's exploiting his son, i.e. himself. Somehow, he never reduces this to a slap at old dad, nor does he romanticize his father. It's a complex portrait of a singular man whose influence is still being felt.

Van Peebles fils captures some sense of that influence through interview segments. Oddly, sometimes he interviews the actual people who were around during the making of Sweetback, and sometimes he interviews the actors who are playing those people. This becomes a bit surreal when, for example, T.K. Carter, doing a perfect Bill Cosby, appears both within the narrative and documentary parts of the film.

This doesn't detract from the film at all; instead, it seems to highlight the oddity of the cinema world, a place where "real" doesn't necessarily mean "real," and people can play themselves, and thus cease to be really themselves, since they're only acting.

And the acting in Baadasssss! goes a long way toward making this a fun film to watch. Instead of relying on naturalism, which would seem to be the obvious move in a film that tells a true story, Van Peebles gathers a cast of both natural and stagey actors. Adam West, for example, plays a sort of aging, gay Bruce Wayne who wants to help finance Sweetback and also sample some sweet back. We see a little old-fashioned homophobia in Melvin Van Peebles' reaction, and it's an interesting reminder that a crusader for one kind of civil rights isn't necessarily enlightened on all sorts.

Ossie Davis does his usual Ossie Davis, which is always so compelling that I'd watch him in Ossie Davis Takes a Nap and Then Reads TV Guide for an Hour. Sally Struthers also does her Sally Struthers thing, but strangely, she comes off as tremendously human, so much so that you might just feel a bit bad about all those Sally Struthers jokes you've been laughing at for the last 10 years.

Mario Van Peebles is fine in the lead, but he's no better than he's ever been, which is about average. Character actor Len Lesser, best known as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, does a truly disturbing turn as twin brothers, and the considerable charms of Nia Long, Joy Bryant and Karimah Westbrook go a long way in some small roles. There's also a zany performance by Rainn Wilson as Melvin's hippied-out movie friend who brings him luck and drugs and ladies sans culottes.

While I think Baadasssss! has a number of flaws, mostly in the lackluster cinematography and uninspired direction, it's also tremendously entertaining and enlightening. It's edutainment at its best, in that it informs while also offering nudity, violence and lots of hippies. And really, in this time of war, is there anything more we could ask for?

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