To say Melvin Van Peebles invented black cinema would be disrespectful to the pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux who came before him. But I’m going to say it anyway. For all Micheaux’s contributions, from his battles against the stereotyping of black characters to his introduction of Paul Robeson to the movie-going public, he worked within the confines of the white film industry. Van Peebles left that world after his first Hollywood feature, “Watermelon Man,” to become an industry of one with 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” His most recent feature, “Confessions of a Ex-Doofus Itchyfooted Mutha” mashes up the screen with only one significant credit: Written composed, directed, edited/painted, and produced by MELVIN VAN PEEBLES.
That black panther who ran from one end of “Sweetback” to the other is still running. This time, he’s not running from the man, but from his hometown Chicago, his sweet woman Rita, and finally from African slavers who have got him working in the mineral mines. In the beginning, with Peebles playing a fourteen year old runaway, the story seems like autobiography, but by the time he defeats pirates on the high seas, it feels less like personal history and more like a tall tale.
When Micheaux debunked the racism of “Birth of a Nation,” he still spoke in the language of D.W. Griffith. Peebles, on the other hand, found a new cinematic language for his attack on mid-century racism. Sweetback’s run was no Keystone Kops car chase; it was a wild improvisation ala Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Just as he edited that film to the rhythms of jazz, his new film snaps to the crackle of hip-hop. Even the grooves of the dialog track occasionally get crushed. But it is not just the style that is unique; it is the worldview. Peebles is not reflecting somebody else’s reality on the screen. He is using the screen to create his own reality. Art has historically been the province of such individuals, who devise the means to organize the material of their own consciousness in such a way that it may be experienced by those having no familiarity with it. Many have communicated the African-American experience to those outside of it through music, art, and drama, but few have succeeded in such a direct way, without using the accepted templates of their times.
“Sweetback” inspired other African-American film-makers, such as Jamaa Fanaka ( Emma Mae), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), to create new forms through which to tell their stories. It was no longer enough to repeat an Arthur Miller play with black characters. The play itself had to change. For the first half of his career, August Wilson succeeded in this triumphantly. After moving to Seattle, which ended his collaboration with director Lloyd Richards, his work lost its vitality and became subscription bait for a nondescript regional theater company. But those first plays: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “Two Trains Running,” rang clearly with a new and honest voice while the rest of the American theater followed Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and David Mamet to its death.
Unlike August Wilson, Peebles did not become part of the compromised mainstream, but continued to re-invent the mediums of film, theater, music, and art, to contain his own vision. Now, at the age of 75, he is still the young man who told the story of Sweetback, and continues to tell the story. It is the story of a man who can never stop running. “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus Itchyfooted Mutha,” begins as a hip autobiography told in the rhythms of Poetry+Soul, with lines such as “to save myself money I stopped going to the movies and went to the library and started to triple-feature my way through the books.” It is like a Northern “HuckleBerry Finn” told from Jim’s point of view. Then it gets weird, and a little scary, as he falls into the Hudson River and floats past the Stature of Liberty onto the beaches of Manhattan, where new adventures await. After crossing the equator a couple hundred times, he returns to New York City like a penitent Odysseus, wanting nothing more from the world except the forgiveness of the woman he has left behind.