Forty years ago this month, Melvin Van Peebles’ celluloid classic, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, shook up the world of cinema, much as a brash young pugilist originally known as Cassius Clay had done in the boxing ring some seven years earlier. Van Peebles’ independently produced film merged European modernism and the avant-garde with the urgent demands of black power to create a cinematic document that echoed sentiments similar to those being articulated in the urban streets of 1970s America.
Though opening in only two theaters at the outset — one in Detroit and one in Atlanta — Sweetback went on to gross large sums of money compared with the initial cost of production, thus allowing Van Peebles to, among other things, reimburse Bill Cosby, who had graciously given the aspiring auteur a loan so that he could complete his ambitious film.
With no such thing as a marketing budget, Van Peebles released the film’s Earth, Wind & Fire sound track before the film, and he would rely on the oral tradition, using strong word-of-mouth support, to help promote Sweetback to eager urban audiences. When the dust cleared, the film’s success made Hollywood pay attention to the existence of an untapped audience. This set in motion a process that would give birth to a genre eventually referred to as “blaxploitation” going forward.
The critical reaction to Sweetback was varied. Lerone Bennett, executive editor of Ebony magazine, penned an article entitled “Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland” that criticized the film for romanticizing ghetto life, for opening with the scene described as the “rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute” and for assuming that sexual prowess was synonymous with revolutionary actions. According to Bennett, “f—ing will not set you free.”
Yet Huey P. Newton, head of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, wrote his own lengthy essay about the film in the Panthers’ newspaper. Arguing that Sweetback was a cultural reflection of the same types of political ideas that the Panthers championed, he went on to suggest that the movie was the “first truly revolutionary black film.” Sweetback would become required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party.
The marked differences of opinion about this film would initiate an ongoing cultural debate, often centered around positive and negative media images and black representation in general. This same debate, somewhat modified, lingers to this day in relation to hip-hop culture.
He’s a Complicated Man
In July 1971, MGM released Shaft, and it was as though the independent spirit of Sweetback had now quickly spawned a more mainstream successor. Unlike Sweetback, which posited its hero (played by Van Peebles) as “the bad-ass nigger coming back to get some dues,” Shaft featured Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.”
In each case, the sexual prowess and protagonist’s overall swag signaled the emergence of a new kind of black character, one who specialized in kickin’ ass and takin’ names! John Shaft, however, was equally at ease among cops and convicts, gangsters and revolutionaries. He was, after all, “the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.”