Most Important Black Films – #7 Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song



The film that literally starts the discussion of modern black filmmaking, Sweet Sweetback on its most basic level is the story of one brotha on the run from the police.  If you know anything about black folks, our history, and our paranoia, you can easily insert the statement/joke, “Well, that’s a movie!” and be done with it right there.  But I’ll go a little deeper.  On to the tale of the tape…

Relevance:  It was the late 60s/early 70s.  JFK and RFK had been shot down, Dr. King had been shot down, Malcolm had been shot down.  The era of liberal optimism had come to a violent end.  Out of this climate came Melvin Van Peebles, who did some work here and there, but had a desire to do this story that spoke to the ‘brothas on the street.’  Needless to say, funding (or anything else) didn’t come falling out of the sky for this one.  So piece by piece he put it together (with a little help on the back end from young Bill Cosby) and this film was born.  When it opened it was given a well deserved X rating and barely screened.  But when it found its audience it found it.  Hollywood caught wind of the idea that ‘Hey, we can make dirt cheap movies for black audiences and easily make a profit” and the blaxploitation era was officially born.  I’m not going to get on my soapbox other than to say that lesson about making cheap films for black audiences has been remembered and forgotten at least three times in my very short lifetime.  Such is the Business (and life).  Moving on…

Legacy:  There’s the whole creating a 70s subgenre thing, but the best legacy for this movie was the film Badass!, written and directed by Melvin’s son Mario.  More than a tribute really, the film (which doesn’t hide the fact that Melvin stuck his young son in one of the original film’s most notorious sex scenes) is very solid in its own regard, and gives a great insight on how insane it was to get this film made (and the struggle of getting any independent film made truth be told).  Worthwhile viewing even if you’ve never seen the original.

Craft:  Sweet Sweetback is not in any sense of the word a ‘traditional’ film, so know that going in if you’re going to check it out for the first time.  I’ll award the points for this category to the group that did the soundtrack for the film.  A little outfit known as Earth, Wind and Fire.  Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Crossover:  Business wise absolutely.  Hollywood took notice and Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, Dolemite and countless others took their turns portraying the ‘Black Superman/Superwoman/Anti-Hero’.  But cross over audience wise?  Ehh…  Put it like this: this was said to be Huey P. Newton’s favorite film, so much so that it was required viewing for the Black Panther Party.  So yeah…

Apollo:  Absolutely; like I said, it earned its X rating.  A question I’ve often been asked over the years is ‘How do you simulate some of the more graphic sex scenes’ that you see in movie X or Y?  Well, it’s been said that there wasn’t any ‘simulation’ in this movie.  And um, guess how the title character earned his name?  Yup…

The film countdown continues next month with probably the most quotable black film of all time…

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