Melvin Van Peebles and the Uncanny Score for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
In 1971, Hollywood had hit a crossroads. Television was the medium of the moment, while public taste for musicals was at an all-time low, and America's film industry was on the verge of bankruptcy. That summer, MGM—the same studio that brought a warm and fuzzy romanticism to the race relations of the Antebellum South in 1939's Gone With the Wind—released a movie about a Black P.I. hired by a Harlem mobster, created on a shoestring budget of $500,000 and starring Richard Roundtree in the lead role, who up to that point had mostly played in commercials. Shaft turned over $13 million, turning around MGM's fortunes and inspiring the massive wave of Blaxploitation movies that would characterize the early '70s and change the face of American cinema. It remains one of the genre's figureheads, spinning out into a five-film franchise. The progression of Shaft reads something like a case study in the co-option of radical ideas by commercial interests, the films brought rapidly into the ideological mainstream at the same time as their production values skyrocketed. In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson starred as Shaft II, a relative of the original Shaft and an NYPD detective. The Shaft of 2019 resurrected itself as a buddy cop comedy created with a budget of $35 million, reprising Richard Roundtree as the aged original, along with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft II and Jessie T. Usher as his son, JJ Shaft, a data analyst for the FBI.
This article isn't about Shaft. It's about another film, released earlier in 1971. A film that makes up a crucial part of the same story, though its place in that story is more ambiguous and more striking; one that topped Shaft at the box office on a fraction of the budget, but now, compared to Shaft's continued mainstream appeal, has gone the way of the dusty annals of cult movie history. I'm talking about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
It may seem strange to begin with the other Black-led movie of '71, but looking at the two together, their receptions and continued legacies, reveals a lot about the dynamics of race and anti-racism in Hollywood and the major studios' monolithic influence over collective memory. In the process, we can note something of the way music, which was central to the success of both films, works within this dynamic.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is not a Hollywood movie. It was conceived and independently produced by Melvin Van Peebles, a polymath from the South Side of Chicago who wrote, directed, starred in, edited, composed the score for, and self-funded the entire project, with the help of a $50,000 interest-free loan from Bill Cosby.
Sweetback tells the story of a sex-show worker, nicknamed "Sweet Sweetback" for his sexual prowess, who is taken into custody by two LAPD officers as a fall guy, with promises to be released the following day. However, on the way to the station, the cops arrest and then brutalize a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu. Seeing Mu-Mu's life is in danger, Sweetback uses his handcuffs to beat the cops unconscious. The rest of the film follows Sweetback on the run, using his sexuality as currency, encountering police violence and Hells Angels, and, with help from the Black Panthers, eventually escaping to Mexico.
Before the '70s, the roles available to Black actors tended to be as villains, criminals, servants, primitive natives in colonial fantasies, or the kind of nondescript characters that provided fodder for early deaths in action movies. For Sweetback to feature a Black man in the lead road was radical; for him to go up against the law and make it out alive was revolutionary. Van Peebles relates watching the movie on opening night, in recently desegregated Atlanta:
"There was an old Black lady sitting beside me, and when Sweetback was out in the desert she said, 'Oh Lord, let him die. Don't let those men kill him.' ... Nobody could believe he was gonna actually live or get away."
Sweetback came at a transitional moment for Black Americans. The dismay and grief of the previous decade, caused by the assassinations of many of the civil rights movement's figureheads, had given rise to a defiant pride and new militancy, with the Black Power movement. As Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, wrote years later, "Brother Malcolm called for 'freedom by any means necessary,' while Brother Martin preached 'freedom by peaceful means' … and, unfortunately, they both were shot … Colored folks woke up to the fact that power concedes nothing without demand; we simply would not be able to sing our way to freedom." Sweetback's defiant message spoke to changing mood and a Black public tired of seeing themselves caricatured or ignored in movies. Upon its release, Sweetback became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party, whose leader Huey Newton called it "the first truly revolutionary Black film made … presented to us by a Black man."
Others were less convinced. The historian Lerone Bennett Jr. argued that it fetishized the poverty of the ghetto, asserting that the film is "neither revolutionary nor Black because it presents the spectator with sterile daydreams and a superhero who is ahistorical, selfishly individualist with no revolutionary program, who acts out of panic and desperation." In his essay "The Emancipation Orgasm," he highlights the movie's sexual fantasism, stating quite bluntly, "It is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary finally for anyone to suggest to Black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to screw their way across the Red Sea. Fucking will not set you free. If fucking freed, Black people would have celebrated the millennium 400 years ago." Joan Mellen, in her book Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in American Films, criticizes Van Peebles for "marrying [his] criticism of racial injustice in America to the myth of the inexhaustible sexuality of the Black male, refurbishing the old racist stereotype of the 'buck', the Black stud … [Sweetback] is nothing more than an embodiment of how white society has fantasised Black sexuality."
Criticisms like these have meant Sweetback has been regularly lumped in with the many Blaxploitation films it inspired. We tend to see Blaxploitation in genre terms these days, as the sheer volume of movies following in the wake of Sweetback and Shaft led to an inevitable convalescence of ideas and tropes into an easily replicable formula. With over 200 Blaxploitation movies made in the early '70s, this formula got as far as decadent Blaxploitation Horror crossovers like Blacula and Blackenstein, before becoming the stuff of parody in Spike Lee's movies of the '80s, and of sparkly-eyed homage in Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. As well as putting Black actors in the lead for the first time, Blaxploitation has been remembered for putting funk and soul on the big screen. While Sweetback opened the door, Shaft's score was written by Isaac Hayes, who had originally auditioned for the lead role, and made him the third Black American to win an Oscar, following Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier, and the first Black composer to win Best Original Score and Best Original Song, for "Theme from Shaft," which also hit the top of the Billboard charts. Superfly, released the following year, enlisted Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack album was one of the few in history to outgross the film it accompanied, becoming one of his most iconic releases.
However, the term was coined by Junius Griffin, then head of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP, playing on the notion of "exploitation" films, a sort of catchword for cheap, money-making B-movies that appealed through a language of sex, violence and the many unsavoury things that the still quite prim and proper studios liked to keep their hands clean of. While for many Black Americans, seeing themselves represented in major roles at the cinema was a long-overdue and welcome beginning, Griffin believed the images of sensationalised sex and violence that characterized the flood of movies that came in the wake of Sweetback and Shaft, and the pimps, pushers, gangsters and bounty hunters that filled their narratives, entrenched negative stereotypes about Black Americans, while enabling the generally white-owned studios to turn Black suffering and division into a cash cow. It's easy to see how Shaft, MGM's last-ditch attempt to avoid liquidation, is a prime example of Hollywood's exploitation of a nascent cultural moment. The film supposedly was written to feature a white actor in the lead role, although in the novel on which it's based, Shaft is a Black detective. Van Peebles claimed the studio hastily rewrote the script following Sweetback's box-office triumph, though filming had actually begun in January, with Richard Roundtree already confirmed in the role. Regardless of when the change occurred, some critics have argued that "Shaft is a product of the (white) studio imagination and merely a 'Black-skinned replica' of the white action hero commonly found in the detective genre." Sweetback's place in all this, though, is much more ambiguous.
For one thing, the white Hollywood establishment played no part in its creation. Van Peebles, who'd gone from working as a child in his father's tailor shop on the South Side to studying literature on an art scholarship at Wesleyan, had self-taught filmmaking when he turned a book he'd written about his experiences as a railway worker into a movie, at the suggestion of an excited reader who found him at work on the tracks. These early films, DIY by necessity but with a flair for the avant-garde, brought Melvin to Paris on an invitation from the Cinémathèque Française, where he began homeless and sang for money but ended up a successful investigative journalist writing in French. During this time he was immersed in the world of French New Wave cinema and eventually returned to L.A. after one of his films was picked up by and won the San Francisco Film Festival. After directing the successful Watermelon Man, a comedy about a bigoted white insurance salesman who one day wakes up as a Black man, Van Peebles realized he could never make the kind of movie he truly wanted to within the context of Hollywood studio politics, and for his next venture he went it alone.
At the time it was difficult and sometimes dangerous to make a film without the backing of the unions, so, unable to pay union wages, Van Peebles armed his crew in case of any trouble, and pretended he was making a porno, filming graphic sex scenes on the days union reps visited the set. At some point in the production, he contracted gonorrhea, from one unsimulated sex scene, and successfully filed a compensation claim with the Director's Guild, which allowed him to buy more film. Lacking a budget for stunts, Van Peebles performed them all by himself, and at one point, after blowing up a car for a scene, continued to film as the fire department arrived, getting a shot for free. Exploitative, it certainly was. Women appear in the movie largely to facilitate its many sex scenes, most of which were reportedly unsimulated. In the opening scene, the young orphaned Sweetback, newly taken in at the brothel, is raped by one of the sex workers. The scene was played by Van Peebles' son Mario, who at the time was around 13 years old, and has been edited out of U.K. editions due to child protection laws. Mario would later go on to write, direct and play his father in Baadasssss, a movie about the making of Sweetback. In a review of that film, Roger Ebert wrote, "It's clear that (the real) Mario admires his father while at the same time harboring some resentment against his old man's strong-willed, single-minded treatment of people."
On the other hand, Ebert notes, "to one degree or another, all low-budget films are like this one, with cast and crew members bludgeoned into hard work at low pay in the service of the director's ego." And Sweetback was no simple vanity project. Simultaneously highlighting the violence faced by Black Americans by the police and leaving the law as the red-faced loser at the end, it's a film that could not have been made within the studio system. Today, Hollywood's high-profile Black-led movies tend to take on an uncomfortably forced "Can't we all get along?" approach when tackling the tense relations between Black people and the police. In 2019's Shaft sequel, three generations of Shaft work together, Roundtree's original P.I. side by side with an NYPD officer and an FBI analyst. Black Panther cast Martin Freeman as a not-too-hip but ultimately heroic CIA officer who plays a vital role in helping save Wakanda—a particularly pernicious bit of PR, not only given the CIA's track record of meddling in African politics, but also for its role in bringing down the real-life Black Panthers through their domestic surveillance program, Operation Chaos. Even Spike Lee has come under fire for BlacKkKlansman's bizarre one-bad-egg take on police racism. Sweetback is a wholly different sort of movie, by necessity cut off from the whitewashing influence of studio funding. It's the kind of film that could arguably only have been made through the scrappy single-mindedness of a filmmaker like Van Peebles.
If we look more closely, Sweetback doesn't comfortably fit its detractors' analyses. There is no romanticism in Van Peebles' portrayal of the ghetto. The backdrop of the film is cold and harsh; the climate of fear palpable. This is not a space of cool gangsters and flashy pimps. Sweetback is full of downtrodden people in fear of the heavy hand of the law, whose only protection is through the militant solidarity of the Black Panthers. Sweetback's character, too, is complex and quite hard to get a read on. While Shaft is an unambiguous baadasssss, slick in a gun fight and full of macho sexuality, Sweetback is a strangely passive hero. He speaks very little throughout the movie. It feels like the entire film happens to him. Sweetback's violence is reactive, a momentary reflection of all the violence he, and the Black community portrayed in the film, has endured and absorbed. Mellen's critique of his "inexhaustible sexuality" also seems misplaced. Sweetback is passive, too, in sexual encounters. From the opening scene, which makes for very uncomfortably viewing, sex is never on Sweetback's own terms. Black masculinity was a hot topic in the late '60s and early '70s, among the Black Panther Party especially, who hoped to undo a perception that Black men were inherently, rather than circumstantially, unable to provide for their families. At times this could stray into machismo, but Sweetback at least begins as a somewhat emasculated figure, buffeted about by the coercive powers of others. At his most active, he runs.
The movie's opening credits say "Starring: The Black Community." The crew working on Sweetback was majority non-white, at Van Peebles' insistence. Not only was this practically unheard of, but given the lack of opportunities for people of color on film sets, many working on the film learned on the job. The crew may have been poorly paid, but Sweetback, both symbolically and in a quite literal sense, seized the means of film production for Black filmmakers, carving a space of opportunity for many to follow.
The same should be said of Sweetback's brilliant and all-important score. Despite having no real knowledge of music, Melvin wrote the melodies for the soundtrack, using a piano with the keys numbered so he could write down the sequences. His secretary at the time was sleeping with a member of a then-unknown funk and soul group that had recently moved to L.A. from Chicago and were working on their first album, and persuaded him to get them involved. Earth Wind & Fire recorded Van Peebles' score on a promise and were later paid with a check that bounced. Van Peebles hummed the melodies and taught them his notation method, and the band arranged the music around this.
Verdine White told OffBeat Magazine:
"We were there when [Van Peebles] was in the editing room at Paramount Pictures, and he gave an idea of what a song was going to be. He was great; he was a very driven person, great imagination … It was a real different, real radical [movie]. It was a very radical time in America. We hadn't signed with Clive Davis at the time. We were a very new group, so for us to do a soundtrack at the beginning of our careers was amazing. We were happy just to have stuff in the movie, to have our music on the big, wide screen. At the time, there weren't a lot of movies that had Black music in it."
With no marketing budget for the film, Van Peebles made the unusual but immensely successful move of releasing the soundtrack first, through Stax Records. We have already seen that the music from Shaft and Superfly would go on to top the charts and sit among the most iconic funk and soul releases of the era, so we might reasonably expect a smash hit from the band behind "September" and "Boogie Wonderland." But in fact, the score is out there. A blend of midtempo funk with dissonant freeform jazz, musique concrète (wailing sirens, gunshots, disembodied voices, and ambient sounds weave in and out), choral gospel standards, and the occasional squealing psych guitar—it occasionally breaks down into chaotic dissolution, but always snaps back into the impossibly tight groove the band would come to be known for. The music is central to structuring the film and giving it momentum. The movie doesn't move in a clearly linear direction, instead replicating the circularity and confusion of running in panic: Dialogue is repeated, voices echoing disembodied through the film, and the dark cinematography is superimposed with jump cuts, fades and avant-garde effects, unusual for American films of the time but perhaps inspired by Van Peebles' time among New Wave directors in Paris. The music reflects the onscreen chaos, moments of dissonant free jazz convey panic, while tracks like "Come On Feet" up the tempo to a breakbeat-driven spring, as Sweetback once again is forced to run for his life.
Before it became the soundtrack to rooftop bars and fast-food ads, soul music was closely tied to the civil rights movement in the U.S. In the mid-'40s, an old gospel song, "We Shall Overcome," was popularized after being sung in a cigar workers' strike in Charleston, South Carolina, led by Lucille Simmons. In 1947, it was published in the People's Songs Bulletin by the dynastic folk-collector and communist Pete Seeger, whose lifelong mission to preserve and promote working-class music led to the founding of the iconic Folkways label. Two decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. would work its lyrics into his speeches, and not long after it was sung by over 50,000 attendees at his funeral. In 1964, Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come" was released, quickly becoming a de facto anthem for the civil rights movement. Following the shooting of James Meredith in 1966, Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power" speech signalled a change in tone, and the stoic resilience these titles suggest was replaced by a more active, defiant tone. "We're a Winner" by the Impressions (Curtis Mayfield's early band), released in March 1968, was rejected by numerous radio stations due to its militant tone. Elaine Brown, the Black Panther Party's Minister for Information, released two albums with the jazz visionary Horace Tapscott, and his Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra. At the same time, there was a sense that some of the more popular artists were not doing enough to promote the cause, despite their considerable platforms. In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. King, James Brown was under pressure from Black activists and, after numerous talks with the Black Panther Party, he released "Say It Loud, I'm Black & Proud," which became the iconic anthem of Black power.
Sweetback's score captures a sense of this connection, but also the radicalism of avant-garde jazz. It's no commercial addition, despite Van Peebles's success in promote the film through the album's prelease. Earth, Wind & Fire pulled off something truly special, so early in their career, a kind of funk music that could be both popular and genuinely cinematic—one minute grooving along with a catchy hook, the other unleashed into an atonal blaze that recalls the celestial flights of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, or the hallucinogenic concrète of Delia Derbyshire. Sweetback deconstructed more boundaries than most of the films it opened the door to, and Earth, Wind & Fire matched it note for note.