In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles set out to make a film dedicated to “all those Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of ‘The Man.'” The result was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which in 1971 was one of the highest-grossing independent films ever made. Its success was due to its provocative and controversial content – which earned it an X rating – and because it was a film made by blacks, for blacks, completely rejecting the African-American cinema of Hollywood.The film opens, characteristically, in a brothel, where a young Sweetback, played by Van Peebles, has been taken in and raised by prostitutes. It is not long – the third minute of the film – before he is drafted into the service of the whores, and in adulthood becomes a darkly silent sexual performer. From the first frame to the last, the film remains closely tied to the protagonist.Sweetback is the strong silent type, typical of the 1970s antihero. He embodies the values of the rebellious and arrogant black-type locked in a ruthless struggle with white racist authority. His primary weapon in this struggle is his sexual virility – he is the “black stud” that Hollywood had been afraid to show.Sweetback’s first violent encounter with “The Man” occurs when he witnesses another black man being senselessly beaten by a pair of faceless police officers. Incensed by this injustice, Sweetback overpowers and incapacitates the cops. In doing so, Van Peebles makes a radical proclamation – a brother can mess with “The Man” and get away with it. During the rest of the film, only sex and violence are effective in protecting him from his myriad Caucasian enemies.In contrast to the humanism of the black characters, the whites that pursue him are portrayed without a shred of dignity or compassion. In “Sweetback” they are a sinister group of conspirators who take personal satisfaction in the capture, abuse and murder of Sweetback and other African-Americans.Despite these sometimes exaggerated caricatures, the film is a social-realist work, using documentary-style immediacy to present the underside of urban life through numerous realistic details. The film is a loosely connected series of crude yet honest cultural vignettes that would have resonated with the contemporary African-American audience – a storefront church that doubles as a rehab center, unprovoked police brutality and the decadence of the whorehouse. As Sweetback wanders from locale to locale, Van Peebles presents a world that exists entirely outside of the social structure laid down by whites.Stylistically, the film is vibrant and original. Rejecting the classical continuity of Hollywood, Van Peebles makes wonderful use of a fragile lacework of images that could easily collapse at any moment, yet successfully functions as a montage of ideas. The mobile camera and on-location shooting tangibly create the urbanity of the black slums of Los Angeles in a way that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Paris.Eventually, Sweetback’s flight takes him out of the city and into the deserts of New Mexico, where he encounters a belligerent gang of Hell’s Angels. When he inexorably comes to fight their leader, she is revealed to be a woman who Sweetback “duels” the best way he can – sexually. Here the film earns its X rating, as Sweetback conquers the bikers with his dong, which has literally become a weapon.Undoubtedly, “Sweetback” is a very important film for the black community, but it is also an important film for the history of cinema. The upcoming screening, presented by Cinema Group on Oct. 21 at 8 and 10 p.m. in Hoyt Auditorium, is a rare opportunity to see this revolutionary, entertaining, inflammatory, offensive and often disgusting film in glorious 35mm. So check it out, whether you have had enough of “The Man” or not.Lotito can be reached atklotito@campustimes.org.



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