I’m an enthusiastic fan of blaxploitation cinema; even though I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the staples of the genre – Shaft, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Blacula, Super Fly, Across 110th Street, and more. But one of the big gaps in my blaxploitation knowledge has been Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin van Peebles explosive and controversial film that’s often held up as the originator of the genre. Originally rated X (“by an all-white jury,” as the posters reminded you), Sweetback is “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” and stars “The Black Community.” It’s a defiant, angry film that features corrupt police officers, constant racism, police brutality, and any number of issues that have yet to become less relevant, sadly. And on that level, it’s a completely compelling film.
It’s also, at the same time, an insane mess – badly filmed and edited, haphazardly thrown together, not particularly well-acted, and simultaneously ambitiously avant-garde and incredibly amateurish. It is, in almost no uncertain terms, a bad film – and yet one whose influence and impact can’t be denied, nor can its strangely compelling mood.
You can read all about the film’s many controversies – the way that van Peebles financed the film by claiming that he was making a pornographic movie; the fact that he supposedly contracted an STD from an actress and successfully filed the equivalent of a workman’s comp claim with the DGA, using the money to finance the film; the fact that he had his 14-year-old strip naked and simulate sex with an also naked actress; the use of a then-unknown Earth, Wind, and Fire to create the film’s soundtrack, which he marketed ahead of the film’s release in an unheard-of move at the time – on and on come the stories about Sweetback, to the point where you can’t help but wonder if a movie about the making of Sweetback wouldn’t be more interesting than the movie itself. (There is such a movie, directed by van Peebles’ son, playing his father; I’m very interested to watch it, but have not seen it yet.)
But ultimately, for all of its impact, watching Sweetback today is a strange experience. It doesn’t have anything resembling a clear storyline; apart from the basic hook (a male prostitute kills two policemen to stop them from beating a black suspect, and goes on the run), scenes feel disconnected from each other, dialogue doesn’t clearly advance the story, performances feel either over the top (I’m thinking especially of the chief of police) or non-existent (most notably van Peebles himself), the sex scenes feel uncomfortable…on and on. It’s a film that feels groundbreaking and unique, undeniably, and even today, more than forty years after its release, it still feels like something primal and incredible – a scream of defiance and refusal to play by any sort of rules set up by an establishment run by white men.
And is there something more pure about the fact that this is a movie written and helmed by a black man, while so much blaxploitation was created by white executives? Undeniably. Sweetback feels genuine and never contrived – no matter what else you say about it, it feels like the vision of one man, trying to create the hell that he felt like America had become and using jarring, discomfiting techniques to create a world that doesn’t make much sense and feels terrifying and unreal.
Or maybe I’m giving Melvin van Peebles too much credit. Maybe the movie is just amateurish and cheap, and its bizarre nature is the result of a lack of experience and not conscious choices. (I don’t entirely buy that, but I think it’s part of it.) There’s certainly no denying that the movie is shaggy to an insane degree, that scenes go on forever or add nothing, that it sometimes feels just like a bizarre fever dream that’s not making much sense, or that there’s no sense of escalation or progression. Whether that’s a conscious choice or not, none of it makes for a film that’s “better”.
But it certainly makes for a film that’s fascinating, and I can’t imagine what seeing it was like in 1971 – particularly for a black audience who had never been given a chance like this to see themselves on screen. And if the film is deeply flawed with its sexual politics and fetishization of black sexuality, there’s no denying the impact of the score, or the gutsiness of some of what’s on screen. Is it good? I’m not sure; I don’t think so. But is it fascinating and compelling? Undeniably. And the fact that I’m still wrestling with my feelings about it several days later speaks to that sharp divide in what the film accomplishes versus how well it’s made.