|Melvin Van Peebles
AKA Melvin Peebles
Birthplace: Chicago, IL
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Film Director, Actor
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Watermelon Man
Military service: USAF (1954-57)
Melvin Van Peebles says he was disgusted more than "inspired" to make films -- disgusted by not seeing any representations of black people in screen that seemed at all like black people he knew in life. Generally thought of as a film director, Van Peebles is also a screenwriter, actor, composer, playwright, novelist, and painter. He was the first African-American to work as a trader on Wall Street, and later started his own investment firm.
He was born Melvin Peebles, raised in Phoenix, and earned a Bachelors' degree in English Literature before enlisting in the Air Force in 1954, where he served as a navigator and bombardier. On leave, he married a white German woman moved to Mexico with her, where he worked as a portrait painter. Eventually they relocated to San Francisco, where he worked as a gripman on cable cars, and wrote a children's book titled The Big Heart. In 1959, he moved with his wife and two children to Holland, where he busked, studied astronomy, and began making short films. To symbolize his break from America, he Dutched his name, becoming Melvin Van Peebles.
Eventually, his marriage dissolved, and his wife and children returned to America. On the strength of his short films, the director of Cinémathèque Française invited Van Peebles to come to Paris, where he spent several years performing, worked as a reporter (interviewing Malcolm X), and wrote several novels in French. The French government offers underwriting to films that are "artistically valuable, but not necessarily commercially viable", and Van Peebles applied for such a grant to film one of his novels, La Permission.
Retitled The Story of a Three-Day Pass, it was his first feature-length film, telling the story of a black American soldier who is promoted for being "trustworthy", and given three days off duty in Paris. Written, scored, and directed by Peebles, the film is a romantic comedy with biting racial undertones, filmed in black-and-white. Three-Day Pass earned Van Peebles a contract with Columbia Pictures, and a ticket back to America to make his next film.
In Watermelon Man, Godfrey Cambridge played a racist white insurance salesman who wakes up black one morning. Cambridge's character is forced to experience the prejudice he has himself long espoused, but Peebles presents this object lesson as a comedy. Watermelon Man earned a respectable take at the box office, especially considering its controversial subject matter.
Van Peebles was now ready to make his landmark film, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. His script told the story of a male prostitute -- "Sweet Sweetback" -- who sees police beating a black activist, and intervenes. It isn't clear whether Sweetback kills the policemen or merely beats the hell out them, but Sweetback spends the rest of the screenplay on the run, having explicit sex with every woman he meets along the way.
Not surprisingly, Columbia Pictures was not interested in making Baad Asssss, so Van Peebles used his substantial Watermelon paycheck to leverage financing for his labor of love. To save money, Van Peebles played the lead himself, and the film was made without Screen Actors Guild certification, after Van Peebles told the union he was making a porn film. Baad Asssss was clearly a low-budget effort, shot guerilla-style over less than three weeks on location in some of Los Angeles' worst neighborhoods. It is an extremely ragged film, nowhere near as accomplished as Three-Day Pass or Watermelon Man, and almost unwatchable for present-day audiences accustomed to seeing professionally-made films.
Still, it was a remarkable film for its time. "Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man", Baad Asssss made a statement that black audiences had never seen on the screen before. It showed minority life in a respectful light, reveled in its rage, and launched what came to be known as blaxploitation, the low-budget genre of black action films of the 1970s. Van Peebles was offered a substantial sum and a distribution deal if he would agree to edit out the last moments of Baad Asssss, but he refused. As a result, the film was rarely screened beyond theaters in black neighborhoods, and in many cities it played in porno theaters. But it earned more than $15 million, a huge amount for an independent film in that era, and Baad Asssss remains Van Peebles' most famous work.
After Baad Asssss, Van Peebles began writing plays. He was nominated for Tonys twice, for Don't Play Us Cheap and Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He wrote an early draft of the Richard Pryor film Greased Lightning, but was fired for "artistic differences." He provided the voice for Louis Armstrong in Satchmo, a PBS documentary, and played the bartender father of his son Mario Van Peebles' character on the TV series Sonny Spoon. He occasionally wrote teleplays for TV movies, and wrote the 1995 film Panther, based on his novel about the Black Panthers, and directed by his son.
In the 2003 film Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles played his father in the backstage story of how Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song was made. The film was based on Melvin Van Peebles' book.
Wife: Maria Marx (photographer-actress, div. 1960s)
Son: Mario Van Peebles (actor)
Daughter: Megan Van Peebles (b. 1-Jun-1958, d. 13-Mar-2006)
Son: Max Van Peebles
High School: Township High School, Phoenix, AZ (1949)
University: West Virginia State College (transferred to Ohio Wesleyan)
University: BA English Literature, Ohio Wesleyan University (1953)
University: University of Amsterdam (studied astronomy)
French Legion of Honor
Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame
Risk Factors: Gonorrhea
FILMOGRAPHY AS DIRECTOR
Gang in Blue (1996)
Tales of Erotica (1996)
Identity Crisis (15-Sep-1989)
Don't Play Us Cheap (1973)
Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (23-Apr-1971)
Watermelon Man (27-May-1970)
The Story of A Three Day Pass (8-Jul-1968)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
We the Party (6-Apr-2012)
Redemption Road (17-Apr-2010) · Elmo
American Swing (5-Sep-2008) · Himself
Hard Luck (17-Oct-2006)
The Hebrew Hammer (23-Jan-2003) · Sweetback
Love Kills (1998)
The Shining (27-Apr-1997)
Riot (27-Apr-1997) · Vernon
Calm at Sunset (1-Dec-1996)
Gang in Blue (1996) · Andre Speier
Fist of the North Star (1995)
Terminal Velocity (9-Sep-1994) · Noble
Last Action Hero (18-Jun-1993) · Cameo
Posse (14-May-1993) · Papa Joe
Boomerang (1-Jul-1992) · Editor
True Identity (23-Aug-1991)
Identity Crisis (15-Sep-1989) · The Inspector
Jaws: The Revenge (17-Jul-1987) · Mr. Witherspoon
O.C. and Stiggs (10-Jul-1987) · Wino Bob
The Sophisticated Gents (29-Sep-1981)
Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (23-Apr-1971)
Is the subject of documentaries:
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), 2005
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