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Arts & Culture/Reel Dealz
Date Posted:6/17/04

by:Edwardo Jackson

MOVIE BIASES: None. Just heard it's about Mario's dad.
MAJOR PLAYERS: Joy Bryant (Honey), David Alan Grier (Boomerang), actor/producer/writer/director Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City)

You hear that? That's the sound of "Baadasssss!" buzz buzz buzzing all over select theaters around the country. And, for once, it's for a movie that totally deserves it.

Documenting father Melvin Van Peebles' struggle to get what turned out to be the first blaxploitation labeled movie to the screen, Mario plays his father back in the '70s when Melvin was hot off his race comedy "Watermelon Man," angling to set up his next provocative project. Wanting to star "all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted," Melvin pitches a strong-willed, almost silent hero for his script "Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" to the studios' predictable disinterest. Aligning with hippie white boy Bill (Rainn Wilson) and his eager, overdramatic secretary Priscilla (Bryant), Melvin assembles a motley, multiracial cast and crew of porn stars and producers, hippies, drug dealers, and children to create the ultimate – and pioneering – independently financed movie experience.

This movie truly does capture the spirit and mood of the '70s. Foursomes, free love, baby blue suits, mushroom collars, drug popping like Tic Tacs – it's all there. The talented if not curious Van Peebles who, like his father, has always been a literal jack of all trades, stays true to the psychedelic, colorful, sexually carefree era, where you could have sex side by side with your friend and his dog with no one batting an eyelash. Van Peebles' script, based off his father's recollections and film, contains great dialogue and events simply too bizarre to make up. It has a bit of a documentary feel to it, with a series of "Real World" style confessionals from the characters throughout of the barely organized chaos of the indie film world Van Peebles was creating.

Despite a microscopic million dollar budget and no studio support, credit Mario for assembling a talented, eclectic cast. Joy Bryant is cute as the forever-auditioning actress-secretary Priscilla; David Alan Grier, with his high-arching eyebrows, is dryly hilarious as porn-turned-legit producer Clyde Houston; Rainn Wilson's Bill Harris is trippy good fun as that down-for-whatever, free love rolldawg every hero needs; and Khleo Thomas (The Rundown) is a talented, brave kid, playing the stoically observant young Mario thrust in age-defying situations.

The habitually swole Mario Van Peebles, although pushing fifty, is still an apropos brooding physical specimen for his unlit cigar chomping father, who's unwavering self-confidence and singularity of purpose is astounding considering the mounting debts, deteriorating health, and sacrificing of everything he had to get this one film made. Even his descent into egolomania is impressive, as it's still wracked by a haunting Sweetback character who taunts him at every turn to deter him from finishing the film. Mario's portrayal of his dad's complex family relationship with his kids is as meta as meta filmmaking gets (Mario's compared it to million dollar "psychotherapy").

Yet what this film leaves you with is a sense of empowerment. There are several black films that make me so mad, I can rarely watch them. I've owned "Panther," "Rosewood," and the like but they make me so mad at the racial injustices of the past that persist in the present, I simply can't watch them anymore. Ironically, the forces that conspired against "Sweetback's" being a studio film back in 1971 are still around today, as every studio in town turned down Mario's uncompromising, multilayered, socially significant script, wanting to coon it up with some more comedy and/or rappers or claiming it was too unbelievable for black men to have such complex relationships with their sons. Seriously. Just to see the struggle to get "Sweetback" – a marginally artistic film that, inadvertently, ushered in the blaxploitation genre for its take-no-crap-from-whitey stance – to the screen makes this film all the more culturally relevant and significant today. The elder Van Peebles pioneered the use of soundtracks as film marketing, non-union crews, independent financing, hell, independent filmmaking in general. This film is equal parts indie film primer, father-son coming of age story, and sociology as entertainment. "Baadasssss!" is easily as important as Spike Lee's racially cauterizing "Bamboozled," my movie of the year in 2000 – with a better ending to boot. This is a film I WILL be watching again.

If ever there was a "School Daze"-like wake up call to black Hollywood, this is it. We don't need to settle for hot garbage like "Soul Plane," the worst kind of socially reckless "blaxploitation" film in a time where we don't need it. We can have engaging, complex, and humorous films that anger, incite, uplift, empower, and, above all, entertain. Elder Melvin is fond of saying "The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rule." Whether studio Hollywood recognizes it or not, we have gold. Melvin and Mario remind us that we can still make our own rules.

@@@@ REELS
An urban classic/instant legend.

Like what you read? Agree/disagree with The Reel Deal? Think he's talkin' out his...HUSH YO' MOUF! (I'm only talkin' about The Reel Deal!) Email him at ReelReviewz@aol.com!

Edwardo Jackson is the author of the novels EVER AFTER and NEVA HAFTA, (Villard/Random House), a writer for UrbanFilmPremiere.com, and an LA-based screenwriter. Visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com

© 2004, Edwardo Jackson

© Copyright 2004

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