Often credited as the first Blaxploitation movie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was directed, written, edited, scored and produced by Melvin Van Peebles, who also played the movie’s title character. Using his own money to finance the film, Peebles literally ran himself into the ground during its 19 day shoot, with friends and family becoming collateral damage. That the biopic depicting the making of this film would be written, produced, directed by and starring one of those casualties, showed promise. However, like father like son, Mario Van Peebles can only do so much with a shoestring budget and a shooting schedule of less than three weeks.
Like the film its making depicts, Baadasssss! exhibits many directorial flourishes, most of which occur in the film’s opening minutes. The remainder of the biopic seems to continue its subjects' style by giving all indications that it too was filmed in a haphazard fashion. An eclectic cast provides a mildly comic retelling of Melvin’s battles with Hollywood before a darker subtext emerges that places the younger Mario Van Peebles in the spotlight. The evident conflict that the elder Mario Van Peebles feels about this time while simultaneously celebrating his father’s achievement, casts a muddled pall over the entire proceedings.
It may be this is an important film. Certainly the points it makes about Hollywood’s depiction of African Americans needs to be aired. Yet, like the movie whose making it depicts, the message gets lost in the debris.
as Melvin Van Peebles
as Bill Cosby
as Mario Van Peebles
as Megan Van Peebles
During the end credit interviews with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s cast and crew, Hubert Scales (who played Black Panther Mu-Mu) claims that the title character of Shaft was changed to an African-American because of this film’s success. It is a claim that Van Peebles often repeated during this biopic’s release. However filming for Shaft, with Richard Roundtree in the title role, began months before the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which this biopic declares was the 27th March 1971.
Whether it be by design or lack of budget, Peebles' decision to intercut original footage of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song into the biopic’s many scene recreations is a unique and clever touch.