July 30, 2011

Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (USA 1971)

"Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" by Melvin van Peebles is one of the first films with black main characters and the film that kick-started the whole Blaxploitation movement. There are some examples of early black cinema but generally, black people were only found in supporting roles before 1970. The film is not short on sex and violence which earned it an X rating. Since a white jury was responsible for the rating, the film was consequently marketed as the film the man doesn't want you to see. Unexpectedly, the low-budget production became one of the biggest independent hits of that time, grossing over 4 million dollars - evidence of how much more open the audience was at that time...

The film is primarily interesting from this historical perspective. Compared to the later, much more glossy Blaxploitation films backed by major studios, it is a raw and radical piece of filmmaking. One might also say that the film is a total mess. The small budget definitely shows. There are some good ideas but nothing really fits, the cinematography is mostly amateurish, the actors and dialogues are at B movie level and the film's sociopolitical message is delivered with a sledgehammer. The ending especially where Sweetback - wanted for beating down two white cops - strolls around aimlessly in the desert, is testing the limits of the audience. The score is one of the best things about the film but its endless repetition is increasingly annoying as well.

Despite all that, "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" is a powerful film. At times, it bursts with energy and and the underdog spirit of its maverick director makes it hard to dismiss it. It is a film that defies being called a "good" or "bad" film but one that can't be denied its importance in film history. On its release in 1971, it must have hit the (white) American audience like a bullet - which is probably what Melvin Van Peebles was aiming for...


I'm not X-rated for nothing, baby!

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