Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Best Movies I've Never Seen (April 21, 2010)

In the past few days, I've seen three more of the films recommended in Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen. I didn't think that much of any of them, to tell the truth. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but--so far, anyway--I have been disappointed by the recommendations in the book more often than not. I saw: Baadasssss! (2004, written and directed by Mario Van Peebles--based on a book by his father, Melvin Van Peebles--starring Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T. K. Carter, Terry Crews, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, and others); Better Than Sex (2000); and Aurora Borealis (2005). This post looks at Baadasssss! More about Better Than Sex and Aurora Borealis in a post tomorrow.

While Baadassss! was interesting on a number of levels, it left me wishing the film had been a straight documentary rather than a hybrid documentary/biopic. Baadasssss!, tells the story of the making of Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, generally considered the first film made for a black audience by a black director that wasn't forced to toady to a white-controlled studio. Baadasssss! was interesting because it tells an interesting story: The elder Van Peebles, set out to make a feature film with almost no resources and entirely outside the Hollywood system--engaging in what some have referred to as "guerilla film-making." Van Peebles worked with whatever he could scrounge. The actors were friends and family. The sets were makeshift. Money was perpetually running out (he finally finished the film with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby). Surprisingly, Van Peebles succeeded.

The elder Van Peebles was angry and it was an angry period in US history. The Black Panthers were agitating for change (and later championed the 1971 film), the Vietnam War was raging. Hoping to direct full-length films after making several shorts, mostly on his own, Columbia offered Van Peebles Watermelon Man, a comedy about a white man that wakes up black. Watermelon Man was a commercial success, but it was mostly his contempt for the studios born of that experience that drove Van Peebles to set out on his own. It's a testament to his determination and persistence that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was completed and released (although rated X and initially in only two theaters nationwide). It went on to become the highest-grossing independent film made up until that time. Van Peebles paved the way for other independent black filmmakers, indirectly spawning the blackxploitation genre as well.

Baadasssss! switches back and forth between a straight retelling of the story of the original film production and documentary-like interviews with the people involved (both the actual people and the actors portraying them). Baadasssss! also attempts to say something about the relationship between the younger filmmaker and his obsessed father, but somehow that relationship never comes across as genuine, and Baadasssss! ultimately seems a fairly bland retelling of the facts. Still, Mario Van Peebles delivers an interesting performance as his father, the story is a good one, and the film gives us a glimpse of what it meant to make a film independently in the early 1970s--more interestingly, what it meant for a black man with a message the establishment didn't want to hear to make a film independently in the early 1970s. Having said that, I get the impression from reading about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song that Baadasssss! downplays that film's violence and sexuality, and, in that sense, Baadasssss! is not entirely honest. Not a great film, by any means, but probably worth seeing once. I imagine Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is available on DVD as well. Now I'm curious.

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