Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971

Nothing can quite explain the shock, revulsion, terror, and ultimate disappointment that comes from watching Melvin Van Peebles’ genre-launching blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Much of the movie is still shocking today, featuring scenes of wildly offensive stereotypes, sex scenes with actual prostitutes, including one involving a child, zero-dimensional characters, and a willful abandonment of filmmaking convention in all its forms.

The paper-thin story concerns Sweetback (Van Peebles), a sex performer who frees a black panther from the clutches of corrupt cops. Now on the run himself, Sweetback, who has only five lines, must find his way through the streets of Los Angeles, a rotating cast of sexual partners, and a prolonged abandonment of narrative to escape to Mexico.

Van Peebles made this movie with everything in his power. He contracted gonorrhea on set, and spent his workman’s comp to buy more film. With it’s random intercuts, repetetive musical cues, interminable cross-fades, psychedelic colour filters, montages showing the same scene over and over from every possible angle, and dynamiting of the fourth wall, it brings nothing to mind so much as the end result of a sullen teenager seeing whatever he can do with 2 hours of footage and 1000 hours on Final Cut Pro. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would be avant-garde if someone had come to their senses and reined in Van Peebles’ incomprehensible directorial vision to result in something less visibly shoddy. A noble fiasco, through and through. D+