Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The discussion of this movie has to be divided into two separate issues: the movie and the cultural phenomenon.

It truly was a phenomenon.

Sweetback was the first highly profitable film made by a black independent filmmaker for a black audience which had previously not been clearly identified or measured.

Melvin Van Peebles was the director, composer, writer, editor, and star of this film. Having already directed five previous films, he sought financing by a major studio and failed because of the film’s inflammatory racial politics and x-rated sex scenes. Investors felt that the film was earmarked for black audiences only, and when Van Peebles finally cobbled together the financing for this film, nobody had any clear idea of how large that market was. 

Late in the financing process, Bill Cosby anted up some money to cover a budget shortfall, but he never expected to make a profit. He wouldn't even take an equity position in the production, but just wanted to make the deal a straight loan. In fact, he was surprised that he ever got paid back at all.

If Cosby had taken the equity position, he would have been paid back somewhere between ten and a hundred dollars for each one he invested, because Melvin struck gold, and found out about the upper limit of the market's potential. He made the film for $150,000-$500,000 (depending on who you believe), and grossed $10-$15 million! Sweetback proved to be the black equivalent of Easy Rider. Peter Fonda had proved in 1969 that a cheaply-made independent film pandering flagrantly to the core values of a highly targeted audience, and made by someone who shared those values, could make a lot of money even if that audience was normally thought to consist of non-moviegoers and even of fringe participants in the economy. Just as Peter Fonda had gotten the Hollywood suits to recognize the potential of the hippie/counterculture market, Melvin got the studio boys to recognize the untapped urban African-American market.

 ... Or maybe "like the Black Easy Rider" is the wrong simile ...

Maybe it should be "like the soul Fantastiks", at least from the longevity standpoint, because I read not too long ago that there is a theater somewhere that has been playing Sweet Sweetback continuously since it was first released in 1971. Unfortunately, the stories about this film are a curious mix of fact and fancy, and I don't know which ones to believe.

Whatever the correct comparison might be, the point is that Melvin Van Peebles proved that there was a lot of money to be made by making films for the urban African-American audience. The film credits “the Black Community” in its opening scene, and is dedicated to “all the Brothers and Sisters who are tired of being held down by the Man.” It made a ton of money. Blaxploitation was born.

And the movie?

There is no kind way to say this. This film was made in 19 days, and is about as bad as a film can be.

  • The lighting is so bad that some scenes just seem to consist of a dark screen with an occasional flickering of light. When I was a kid, a popular school joke for art class was to hand in a blank white piece of paper with two pink dots somewhere in the middle, titled something like "Albino rabbit in a heavy snowstorm". I suppose if we changed to a black piece of paper with some white dots, we might have called it, "Dark skinned guy wearing black clothing in an unlit room on a moonless night." I don't recall Melvin Van Peebles being in any of my art classes, but he must have done the same kinds of things in his youth, because that's what some of his scenes look like.

  • What else could be bad about a movie? You name it, it's here. A corny collage of neon signs to show the passage of the night, non-actors delivering lines, psychedelic kaleidoscope montages in primary colors, phones ringing after they've been picked up, unrealistic plotting (I'll get to that), long stretches with nothing happening except a guy jogging and jogging and jogging over a jazzy, looping background score. I suppose there must be 30 minutes which consist of nothing but Melvin jogging. The film may be the "black Easy Rider" as a cultural landmark, but evaluated as technical filmmaking, it is the "black Manos".

The cost of this film must have been on the low end of the estimated range ($150,000), not the upper end ($500,000). If Melvin really spent $500,000 on this film, as some sources claim, I can't even begin to imagine what he did with the money. He used non-union help. He wrote the score and played the lead. He directed and edited. And there are no lavish production values up there on the screen, to say the least. I had a friend who used to make movies just for fun with a home video camera. He did all the writing. His other buddies and I would play all the roles. Those movies were far superior technically to Sweet Sweetback. The sound was better. The lighting was better. The acting was better. And they were made with a budget which consisted solely of the cost of the blank video tapes.

I guess I have already belabored the point that the film is technically weak.

What about the storyline?

Sweetback, a male street hustler witnesses two white cops beating a black radical of some kind. Sweetback attacks the cops, frees the Panther, and spends the rest of the film running. I should say "jogging". He jogs through urban streets over the official Bart Simpson neon sign montage. He stops at the home of an old friend in a poor neighborhood. As he exists the back door, two cops wave handguns at him. He gets out of that scrape. He joins up with some white bikers, and eventually takes refuge in their tool shed or something. He's in there for five minutes when two cops burst in waving their handguns. He gets out of that scrape. Near the end, he rides on the top of a vehicle, then in the back of another vehicle (unknown to the driver), then hitches a ride with some migrant workers, then hops two different trains, then hops off in the desert - and within about 30 seconds, an army helicopter is checking him out, and some more cops are chasing him. This time, it turns out that Sweetback changed clothes with some hippie, and the cops are following the wrong guy.

Cut to the real Sweetback, now wandering through the mountains, seemingly hundreds of miles from civilization, but before we get a chance to think he's safe, we see two guys chasing him with some vicious dogs, and ...

 ... and you get the idea.

As it turns out, he gets out of that one too. We see the two guys let the dogs go, then sit down for a rest. They hear the dogs stop barking, and assume that to mean the killer animals have found and disabled their quarry.

Then we see a river full of blood and ...

 ... dead dogs.

(That was the one scene in the film that I thought was really cool. The camera showed blood in the river, then some bloody rocks, and we are led to believe Sweetback has bought the farm - until the camera moves farther upstream to catch the first dead dog.)

After we see the dogs, another word slide comes up and says something like, "Watch out. A baad asssss is coming back to collect some dues."  And then we see Sweetback one last time, still running, while the closing credits crawl. We hear dissonant music and police sirens.

There isn't a lot of dialogue. Melvin is on screen almost continuously, and I don't know if his lines would amount to more than a paragraph. He fucks, he fights, he runs, he fights, he fucks, he runs, he runs, he runs ... People speak to him. People speak about him. But he rarely speaks.

What about the X rating?

Bad Movie Night summed it up:

Very rarely does a film begin with child pornography during the opening credits, then go on to display penises, strap-ons, sex parties, a fat man defecating on camera, brutal beatings, brutal torture (a man has his eardrums blown out one by one by the police), slow and agonizing murders, sex acts with nearly every female character, rotting dead skinned dogs, a gangrenous pus-infected wound, and an interesting use of what is probably urine but quite possibly may be semen.

The sex is explicit - an X or NC-17 by the standards of any age. I've seen softcore porn films with less explicit sex. The film begins with Sweet Sweetback as an orphan boy being taken in by some ladies of the evening. One of those ladies takes his cherry. The young Sweetback is played by Melvin's own son, Mario Van Peebles, who could not have been more than 13 or 14, but the scene includes full frontal nudity from the actress playing the whore, as well as from young Mario. The camera also watches from above as the naked boy moves on top of the woman. The scene could not be filmed at all these days. It would clearly be considered exploitation of a minor.


  • Melvin Van Peebles shows it all in various scenes.
  • Several actresses bare all as well. There would be some open genitalia shots, except that the lighting is not adequate to show any detail between the legs of a black woman with a full bush.

DVD info from Amazon

  • no widescreen

  • interview with Melvin Van Peebles

  • trailers from some of Melvin's other movies.

Later on, Melvin performs in a sex show. In his visit to the biker camp, he jumps on the biker chick. All of these scenes show Melvin's genitalia, as well as extensive nudity from the women. In fact, Melvin admits in an interview on the DVD that he actually had sex with at least one of the women.

According to legend, Melvin contracted gonorrhea from one of the actresses while filming one of the sex scenes in the movie. As the story goes, he applied for compensation from the Directors Guild because he "got hurt on the job", and used the money to buy more film.

The Critics Vote ...

  • No major reviews on file.

The People Vote ...

  • The DVD box claims $10 million at the box office. IMDb reports $15 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+, as a cultural statement with vast historical value in that it opened up a completely new market for filmmakers. Stripped of that context and viewed solely as a film, it is a low F. (Completely unwatchable. It can fairly be compared to Manos, the Hands of Fate)

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