Melvin Van Peebles, Groundbreaking Filmmaker & Musician, Dies at 89

RIP Melvin Van Peebles: The groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s has died at age 89

9/23/2021 4:40:00 AM

RIP Melvin Van Peebles: The groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s has died at age 89

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.

Mark Sagliocco/Getty ImagesMelvin Van Peebles speaks during the sixth annual Queens World Film Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image on March 16, 2016 in New York City.Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.

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In statement, his family said that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday (Sept. 22). “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Artist MentionedSometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market. headtopics.com

But he was best known forSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, one of the most influential movies of its time. The low-budget, art-house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

Gone But Not Forgotten: Musicians We Lost in 2021With its hard-living, tough-talking depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a Black perspective, it set the tone for a genre that turned out dozens of films over the next few years and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.

“All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film’s release.“I could have called itThe Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback

. But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them,” he told The Associated Press in 2003. “So I saidBa-ad Asssss,like you really say it.”Made for around $500,000 (including $50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $14 million at the box office despite an X-rating, limited distribution and mixed critical reviews. headtopics.com

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The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film “an outrage.”Van Peebles, who complained fiercely to the Motion Picture Association over the X-rating, gave the film the tagline: “Rated X by an all-white jury.”

But in the wake of the its success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out such box office hits as “Shaft” and “Superfly” that were also known for bringing in such top musicians as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes to work on the soundtracks.

Many of Hollywood’s versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in both the white and Black press.“What Hollywood did — they suppressed the political message, added caricature — and blaxploitation was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The colored intelligentsia were not too happy about it.”

In fact, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality coined the phrase “blaxploitation” and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among the genre’s 21st century fans was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-winning “Django Unchained” was openly influenced by blaxploitation films and spaghetti Westerns. headtopics.com

On Wednesday, a younger generation of Black filmmakers mourned Van Peebles’ death. Barry Jenkins, the “Moonlight” director, said on Twitter: “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame.”After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to maintain his independence.

“I’ll only work with them on my terms,” he said. “I’ve whipped the man’s ass on his own turf. I’m number one at the box office — which is the way America measures things — and I did it on my own. Now they want me, but I’m in no hurry.”Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated

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Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural DeathandDon’t Play Us Cheap. He later wrote the movieGreased Lightningstarring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black race car driver.In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a financial self-help guide entitled

Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on Aug. 21, 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the Air Force, serving as a navigator for three years.

After military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portrait painter, followed by a move to San Francisco, where he started writing short stories and making short films.Van Peebles soon went to Hollywood, but he was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to Holland to take graduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theatre.

Eventually he gave up his studies and moved to Paris, where he learned he could join the French directors’ guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly taught himself the language and wrote several novels.One he made into a feature film.

La Permission/The Story of the Three Day Pass, was the story of an affair between a Black U.S. soldier and a French woman. It won the critic’s choice award at the San Francisco film festival in 1967, and Van Peebles gained Hollywood’s attention.The following year, he was hired to direct and write the score for

Watermelon Man, the tale of a white bigot (played by comic Godfrey Cambridge in white face) who wakes up one day as a Black man.With money earned from the project, Van Peebles went to work onSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.Van Peebles’ death came just days before the New York Film Festival is to celebrate him with a 50th anniversary of

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Next week, the Criterion Collection is to release the box setMelvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. A revival of his playAin’t Supposed to Die a Natural Deathis also planned to hit Broadway next year, with Mario Van Peebles serving as creative producer.

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F Loved his work 😢 Rip to him rest in peace Rest In heaven Rest In Power Beloved! You will never be forgotten ❤!

Melvin Van Peebles, Influential Director, Actor and Writer, Dies at 89Melvin Van Peebles, the influential filmmaker behind “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song,” and father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, has died. He was 89. “Dad knew that Bl… 🕯🕊 😔😔😔🙏🙏🙏 1/ 🙏 madlib / MarioVanPeebles Rest In Power Melvin Van Peebles ✊️🙏🌹🌍

Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89Melvin Van Peebles has died at 89. Considered by many to be the godfather of modern Black cinema, Van Peebles was an influential link to a younger generation of filmmakers that includes Spike Lee and John Singleton RIP 🙏🏻 Oh shit RIP Mr. Peebles. My condolences to his family.

Melvin Van Peebles, influential director, actor and writer, dies at 89Melvin Van Peebles, the influential filmmaker behind 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song,' and father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, has died at age 89, his son says.

Melvin Van Peebles, Pioneering Black Filmmaker, Dead At 89The groundbreaking director ushered in the “Blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced many filmmakers.

Melvin Van Peebles, Pioneering Black Filmmaker, Dead At 89The groundbreaking director ushered in the “Blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced many filmmakers. So sorry to hear that. Prayers to MarioVanPeebles And I've probably seen them all! RIP King. RIP I do love the watermelon man 🎞 🎥

Melvin Van Peebles, Pioneer of Black Cinema, Dead at 89Rest in peace, Melvin Van Peebles. A great loss, you have earned all the grace of anyone I know. You brought issues to the screen, and opened peoples minds. You will be missed. Comfort to the family at this time.