In 1971, director Melvin Van Peeples, who had just completed the studio comedy Watermelon Man, did the unthinkable: He made an independently produced film that was profane, had low-low-budget on-screen values, and in an incendiary social moment, boasted a black ghetto revolutionary hero who was taking no more no shit from the white man. No distributor would touch it, but Melvin's film, rolled out initially in a grindhouse in Detroit, tapped into and exploded a marketplace utterly ignored by the aging white establishment. Melvin even employed brilliant promotion based on the film's purported unsalability ("Rated X by an all-white jury"). Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song went on to become the highest-grossing independent film to that date, topping Variety's charts: Melvin had taken on Hollywood, made them kiss his black baadasssss, and kicked open the door for a wave of new black cinema -- both good and bad -- that came after.
While time has inevitably muted just how groundbreaking Sweetback really was, it's nonetheless still a great story. And in 2003's Baadasssss!, Melvin's son, actor and director Mario Van Peeples, re-creates his father's struggle. In front of the camera, Mario also portrays Melvin in 1971 as he cobbles together a rag-tag mixed-race crew (still an unlikely circumstance in contemporary Hollywood), scrounges for funds (Bill Cosby comes through), hustles and jives anybody and anything to get his vision of black America on the screen. The story is lively, peppered with entertaining actors including David Alan Grier, Paul Rodriguez and Rainn Wilson (the weird apprentice Arthur on Six Feet Under), employs some pop history for context, and is frequently funny.
But by playing Melvin, Mario introduces a secondary narrative -- that of his ongoing relationship to his self-consumed father. This story is re-created on screen -- where young Mario (Khleo Thomas) is both awed and angered by Mario-as-Melvin -- and by the making of BaadAsssss! itself, in which a grown son plays a dad who could have been a better father, yet who still provided his son with unimaginable opportunity.
It's something of a hall of mirrors, yet it's not nearly as distracting as it sounds. Thomas seems committed to one lost and lonely facial expression, but the vibrancy of Mario's recreation of Melvin is enough that a viewer can fill in the burden his family surely carried without having such moments literalized on screen. And you'll root for Melvin in spite of himself, because the mere fact of this curious family affair implies resolution.
It's not necessary to have seen Sweetback to enjoy Baadasssss!, though if you have, this film will go a long way toward explaining why Sweetback, while undeniably influential, was an often-unentertaining mess. But in the end, this film unabashedly celebrates Melvin Van Peeples, warts and all. Cosby gets the literal last word, but Melvin, his still-fierce eyes staring defiantly into the camera, gets the last shot.