English Title: Baadasssss! (How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass)
Country of Origin: USA
Studio: Sony Picture Classics
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Producer(s): Mario Van Peebles
Screenplay: Mario Van Peebles, Dennis Haggerty
Cinematographer: Robert Primes
Art Director: Jorge Gonzalez Borrelli
Editor: Nneka Goforth, Anthony Miller
Runtime: 110 minutes
Starring/Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T.K. Carter
Volume: American - Independent
Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 directorial debut, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a landmark film in the history of black independent cinema. Baadasssss! dramatizes Van Peebles’ struggle to get Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song made despite financial difficulties, institutional racism and physical problems suffered by the director. Due to financial limitations, Van Peebles was forced to sidestep the Screen Actors Guild by pretending that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a black pornographic film. An illuminating study of America and American cinema in the early 1970s, the film is a testament to one man’s belief in the power of cinema to participate in revolutionary change, illuminating many of the hurdles that black film-makers, technicians and actors faced at the time from studios wanting to perpetuate stereotypes of black African-Americans by situating them in mainly comedic roles and supporting roles.
Although Baadasssss! sidesteps some of the more problematic parts of Melvin Van Peebles’ film, such as the objectification and sexualization of women, this is a fascinating exposé of American cinema at the time that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made. Baadasssss is a timely reminder of the political urgency which motivated black directors such as Melvin Van Peebles and the surrounding political and social climate that the film was made in. Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin) is a talented actor as well as director and gives a multi-dimensional performance in the role of his father as a single-minded man who goes as far as to neglect and use his children, in particular his son, in order to get his vision to the screen. Khleo Thomas is excellent in the role of the young Mario, who, though only thirteen, is forced by his father to take the role of the young Sweetback, even though it involved a sex scene. The film is effectively directed and edited. Melvin’s voice-over provides an insight into the director’s thoughts and motivations as well as moments of comic relief, as in the scene when he discovers to his horror that a loaded weapon has been stored amongst the prop guns that had been used by the performers. Frequent inserts of camera-facing interviews with the main characters and similar interviews with their real-life counterparts, such as Melvin Van Peebles and Bill Crosby at the close of the film, offer a further insight into the making of the first black independent film using a multiracial cast and its central role within the development of black film-making.
Baadasssss! highlights and illuminates the significance and importance of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in American film history in terms of opening up the film industry for black directors, such as John Singleton and Spike Lee, performers and film crew. It also inaugurated the Blaxploitation era of Hollywood films, which began with Shaft (1971) as its success alerted the major studios to the fact that there were large profits to be made from films (made for $150,000, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song eventually grossed approximately $15 million) which offered a gritty perspective on the lives of black African-Americans, however unrealistic or stereotypical such representations might be. Baadasssss! reminds us of the difference that one man made in the history of independent and Hollywood cinema despite institutional and societal racism. It is a shame that the son’s homage to his father’s groundbreaking film has been considerably less successful; while it can be construed as a testament to the changes undergone in American society in the last 40 years, black and other ethnic groups are still under-represented in the film-making industry.