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May 2004

By Wilson Morales

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Producers: Bruce Wayne Gillies & Mario Van Peebles
Screenwriters: Mario Van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty, based on the book "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" by Melvin Van Peebles
Director of Photography: Alan E. Muraoka
Composer: Tyler Bates
Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Rainn Wilson, David Alan Grier, Joy Bryant, Paul Rodriguez, Saul Rubinek, Nia Long, Khleo Thomas, and Terry Crews


When you think about the independent films, specifically the African Americans films and the exploitation era, one man was the pioneer for the genre and thousands of films that have followed. That man is Melvin Van Peebles. In 1971, he defied the odds and broke several barriers that had existed in Hollywood. He made the movie he wrote without the interference from the studios. The film was"Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song". His son, Mario, was a part of that groundbreaking experience and now some thirty years later, he has decided to make a film in homage to his father by recreating that the process that led to that film being made. "Baadasssss!" captures the essence of independent filmmaking.

Following the financial success of his comedy "Watermelon Man" in 1970, the pressure was on Melvin Van Peebles (played by Mario) for a follow up. Every studio wanted to make a film and his agent was eagerly awaiting his decision. Melvin had another vision no one saw. He wanted to make a film that people, specifically African-Americans, can relate to. His vision was about the black hustler who turned revolutionary against white racist cops. Knowing full well that no studio would back him on his idea, Melvin needed to do this on own through independent financing. To pull it off, he would need just anybody and everybody who could lend him support. From his son, Mario, who would star in the film, and later become a director him to an upstart band who would do the music and become a legend of the own known as "Earth, Wind, and Fire", Melvin used whatever resources he had. Somewhat playing by the rules, Melvin insisted on a multiethnic crew to throw the unions, all white at the time, of the track. He even hired a black porn producer (David Alan Grier) knowing most folks wouldn't dare to be associated with the film. Every move was calculated except for the dollar figures. Time is money and each day and each scene burned whatever financing he had, and when he was almost down for the count and couldn't finish the editing, he swallowed his pride and went to the one source that would come through. The film was released with an "X" rating and folks still came out to see it, where it grossed about 10 times its original cost.

Mario has certainly made the film entertaining enough so that those who don't know the film business would still understand the impact that the original film had made. Never preachy, he instills some narration from the figure-heads that were part of the original film. As actor, no other person can play the man but the son who was there and saw do what he did. He doesn't make Melvin a saint as we see the sacrifices that Melvin commit to complete his film; and while adding suspense to the end could be seen as a drawback, it never takes the viewer away from the scope what he's trying to accomplish. Cinematically, the film is okay and the performances are average as well. No one really stands out. It's the message within the film that ultimately strikes a cord. With the creation of the Sundance Film Festival, many folks have the opportunity to make a film and challenge the old guard for substance, even if the film is made from a shoe-string budget. There are probably many stories like "Baadasssss!" but none come with the politics that film came with and stood the test the time. It's entertaining and inspirational.