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Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song(1971)

This seminal 1971 film was anything but cinema as usual. After scoring a hit directing Watermelon Man (1970), Melvin Van Peebles had been offered a three-picture deal with Columbia, but the studio wouldn’t touch his next script, about a sexually prodigious black man who goes on the lam after stopping the police from beating a political activist. As a result, Van Peebles raised the money himself, eventually writing, producing, directing, editing, starring and composing the score. He shot over 19 days so that the largely amateur cast wouldn’t have time to alter their hair or clothes too much between scenes. After writing the score, he hired the then-unknown rock band Earth, Wind & Fire to record it and wisely released the soundtrack before the film’s premiere to generate word of mouth. Although only two theaters would show the picture, it broke house records in both, eventually becoming the top-grossing independent film of its year. Hollywood took note and began investing in more films with largely African-American casts, giving rise to the Blaxploitation movement. The film’s success also made it possible for other black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, and later Spike Lee, to obtain funding. (d. Melvin Van Peebles, 97m, 35mm)

Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

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