Video Reviews

December 17, 1999:

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

D. Melvin Van Peebles (1971); with Melvin Van Peebles, Rhetta Hughes, John Amos, Simon Chuckster, Mario Van Peebles.

Although it's cited as the forerunner of blaxploitation, Sweet Sweetback really can't be compared to the likes of Shaft or Black Caesar. In fact, it's far removed from much of the genre, thanks to an experimental narrative, haunting soundtrack, and psychedelic camerawork. The story centers on Sweet (Peebles), a hustler who performs in live sex shows. Unfortunately for him, some white cops need a black suspect to round out a lineup, so he's handcuffed and taken away. En route to the police station, the cops arrest a black political radical and beat him senseless. That is, until Sweet intervenes and mauls both officers. From here, he's on the run, and that's pretty much all he does for the remainder of the movie. He encounters a variety of characters (bikers, gangsters, preachers), all of whom are on his side. But as much as anyone tries to help him, Sweet can only depend on himself. With that, he heads to the Mexican border with the police hot on his trail. That's it in a nutshell, but Peebles' frequent split screens and fade-outs add an artsy element to the overall product. Likewise, the accompanying manic jazz (from a pre-disco Earth, Wind & Fire) enhances the frenzied theme. On the downside, this is not an easy film to watch. There's a condensed script, bad lighting, and at times, it seems a little long for its own good. Still, there's a hypnotic charm during many of the running scenes (mainly because of the aforementioned music score) and scenes too freaky to forget (a sex duel with a female biker). Don't expect any cornball, stereotypical jive from Sweet. Peebles' keeps the character as stoic and silent as possible. Regardless, the messages are loud and clear. Not an easy feat to accomplish utilizing such a raw approach, but to his credit, Peebles' film remains a potent document nearly 30 years after its release. (X-rated when first released)

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