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The work of Melvin Van Peebles

By Rob Nelson

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  So what does Melvin Van Peebles, director of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and oft-cited "godfather of modern black cinema," think of Warren Beatty's Bulworth--the one about the aging white senator/rapper/filmmaker who's reborn by rescuing the apathetic black constituency/ghetto/filmgoer? "We've got a supposedly black movie actually being a thinly disguised showcase for white cleverness and/or the entire paternalistic white social structure...the Negro being saved by the liberal white man," Van Peebles says in Melvin Van Peebles: Classified X, his new documentary portrait of the Hollywood plantation.

Actually, that's Van Peebles talking about Sir Richard Attenborough's ersatz Biko biopic Cry Freedom, but the critique holds for Beatty's film too. From the penultimate scene in Bulworth, wherein Halle Berry's fine young radical refers to Beatty's white knight as "my nigga," it's but a short step to Van Peebles' definition of the Hollywood agenda in general: "to protect the status quo, perpetuate the myth of white supremacy, and thereby undermine the Negro struggle for equality in the United States."

Suffice it to say that this new-jack godfather doesn't mince words. Like Beatty (or Bulworth), Van Peebles grabs the mic and raps his heart out, but there's a reason Classified X was produced for European TV rather than the U.S. multiplex. If Bulworth portrays ghetto blacks as grateful to be silent partners in the white man's campaign, Classified X explicitly asks the white viewer to look at Hollywood's race politics from the other side. "Tell you what," Van Peebles says, making a deal with his audience. "You take those rose-colored glasses off, and I'll loan you a special pair of colored folks' shoes. Let's see how they feel to you."

Thus Van Peebles presides over a clip-laden study of American movies from the perspective of their black characters. Acting as film historian, video DJ, and running commentator, he opens with the scene of The Palm Beach Story's bug-eyed "colored bartender" (played by an actor named Snowflake) dodging buckshot from drunken white hunters. "Why are we so scared?" Van Peebles asks. "Well, wouldn't you be?" he answers, as old news photographs of lynched African Americans make Preston Sturges' farce seem like something other than black comedy.

Roughly the documentary equivalent of Donald Bogle's book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, Classified X hardly shrinks from drawing connections between America's racial climate and the silver screen. Van Peebles traces "old Negro" stereotypes all the way back to Thomas Edison's first shorts at the turn of the century, and he links the "new Negro" cycle of ostensibly enlightened melodramas to the World War II-era project of recruiting black manpower. As 1949's Home of the Brave offers up the Army as a bastion of tough-love tolerance--"Ya dirty nigger, get up and walk!" is how a benevolent white doctor cures a paralyzed black G.I.--Van Peebles likens the difference between the "old Negro" and "new Negro" traditions to the difference between the old South and the seemingly liberal North--the latter's racism more insidious for being somewhat less blatant.

But Classified X is also a personal history: Van Peebles, now in his mid-60s, describes being 12 or 13 when he came to identify the "shame" he felt watching wartime matinees. In turn, this shame evolved into grist for Sweetback, his self-described "take-no-prisoners political manifesto" and bid to "kick Hollywood's ass"--the reason he "went into cinema in the first fuckin' place."

At once angrier and more trenchant than other film-historical docs such as The Celluloid Closet and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Classified X brims with incendiary analysis. "The so-called golden era of independent black films is a myth," Van Peebles says of the '20s and '30s period that produced Oscar Micheaux. He later argues that he, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis were all hired "to prove to the world that [Hollywood execs] weren't racist." This bitter view of his industry tenure helps explain why the auteur sat out the '80s, fighting the power as a commodities trader (!) before returning to direct Identity Crisis (1990) and cowrite his son Mario's Panther (1995).

Whether making films or discussing their function, Van Peebles is a critic of rare insight and audacity: When he asserts that "the biggest obstacle to progress in America is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man's program," he's talking about movies, certainly, but more than that. The thought of what he might tell the masses about Bulworth, Amistad, Soul Food, or Men in Black makes one wish he could take the place of Siskel and Ebert. But of course, as the screening room is yet another adjunct of the master's house, that ain't too likely. Not for nothing, perhaps, do the nation's most powerful critics sign off their show by reminding us that "the balcony is closed."

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