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‘Godfather of modern Black cinema’ Melvin Van Peebles dies at 89

WASHINGTON: Pioneering African-American writer and director Melvin Van Peebles, whose groundbreaking 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” inspired a younger generation of Black filmmakers, has died at the age of 89.

Van Peebles, often called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” died Tuesday night at home with his family, his actor son Mario Van Peebles and The Criterion Collection said in a statement.

“We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family.

“In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”

With “Sweet Sweetback,” a low-budget film about a sex show performer who ends up killing two racist cops who were beating a Black Panther activist, Van Peebles ushered in an era of “Blaxploitation” films and was an inspiration to a new generation of filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins.

“I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” Van Peebles told the New York Times in a 2010 interview. “I do what I want to do.”

“Sweet Sweetback,” which Van Peebles wrote, directed, financed and starred in, opened in just two venues but thanks to strong word-of-mouth among Black audiences went on to take $10 million, making it the highest-grossing independent film in history at the time, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The Criterion Collection, which is releasing a collection of his films, called it “a landmark of Black and American independent cinema that would send shock waves through the culture.”

“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free,” Mario Van Peebles said in the statement announcing the death of his father. “True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

“I want people to be empowered,” the elder Van Peebles said in the 2010 Times interview, “and also have a damn good time.”

Born in 1932 in Chicago, Van Peebles graduated with a degree in literature and served in the US Air Force, before variously working as an artist, writer, director, musician and novelist. He also studied astronomy.

His first feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” told the tale of a Black US soldier who is demoted for fraternizing with a white girl in France.

The film got him noticed by Hollywood, with Columbia Pictures signing him to direct the 1970 racial satire “Watermelon Man,” about a white bigot who overnight turns into a Black man.

In addition to his writing and filmmaking, Van Peebles had several shows on Broadway, including the musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” which earned seven Tony nominations.

“Do the Right Thing” director Lee was among those paying tribute, posting a picture of a signed “Sweet Sweetback” poster on Instagram.

“I am so saddened by the loss of my brother Melvin Van Peebles who brought independent Black cinema to the forefront with his groundbreaking film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Lee wrote. “Damn, We Have Lost Another Giant! Condolences To The Peebles Family.”

“Moonlight” director Jenkins said Van Peebles made the most of life.

“He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off,” Jenkins said on Twitter. “The man just absolutely LIVED.”

 

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