Melvin Van Peebles is a legendary actor, writer, composer, painter and director, who was born August 21, 1932 in Chicago, Illinois.
His father was a tailor who put him to work at an early age selling clothing. At 16, Melvin graduated from high school with honors, and at age 20 graduated from Ohio Wesleyan College, earning a degree in literature and art in 1953, also with honors. He pursued ROTC training in college, enabling him to join the Air Force as a first lieutenant. He became a bombardier and navigator on B–47s during the Korean War, and narrowly escaped death when he changed planes with a colleague. After leaving the Air Force, Melvin moved to Mexico with his wife, Maria Marx, and they had two children, Mario and Megan. He returned to California and worked as a cable car driver in San Francisco from 1957-1958, while filming three short movies, and published his first book about cable cars entitled The Big Heart.
In 1959, Melvin relocated his family to Amsterdam intending to study astronomy, but he became employed as an actor in Dutch Theater and continued to finesse his work as a filmmaker. It was during this time that Melvin’s films caught the eye of Henri Langlois in Paris (founder of Cinémathèque Française) who invited him to Paris. Melvin moved to Paris determined he was going to succeed as a filmmaker or die trying. Melvin taught himself French and, for a time, worked for the infamous satirical magazine Hara Kiri as Literary Editor, while continuing to direct short films and writing for additional outlets.
Several of his works won prizes and his fame in France grew. After learning that he could get a director’s card if he wrote five novels in French, Melvin wrote the novels and his life in cinema took off from there. He wrote, produced and directed the feature film Story of a Three Day Pass, which became the French entry to the San Francisco Film Festival in 1967. He won the Critic’s Award, which made Hollywood take him seriously. Shortly thereafter, Melvin found himself in Hollywood. He was hired to direct Watermelon Man (1970) for Columbia Pictures. During this time, Melvin wrote, produced and performed on two albums for A&M Records between 1968 and 1970: Brer Soul (acknowledged by Billboard as the foundation of modern rap music) and As Serious as a Heart Attack. The success of Watermelon Man led to a three-picture deal being offered but he turned it down. He yearned to make an independent film. In 1970, Melvin wrote, produced, directed, edited, composed the score and acted in SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG; which cost $500,000 to make and initially had no distribution. The Motion Picture Association of America gave it an X rating, forbidding anyone under 17 from seeing it. Melvin protested the rating and with the assistance of the ACLU sued the MPAA, but lost. This “ratings war” provided Melvin with an ingenious marketing tool, as he touted the film as being “Rated X By an All-White Jury.” Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton declared that SWEETBACK was revolutionary and mandatory viewing by all Panthers. That—plus the ratings issued—brought black audiences lining up to see it farand wide.
Controversy over the film followed Melvin, who was labeled a “militant”. Most white critics hated it, labeling it as “violent” and “hateful.” In one theater, the chief of police shut it down. Melvin was regarded as a genius and “the real thing” by some and provocateur by others in the media. He decried the label that he was “anti-white” insisting he was anti-racist. Despite the controversies, or perhaps because of them, SWEETBACK was the no. 1 film in the nation on the New York Times list on June 4, 1971. It was the highest grossing independent film of all time as of 1971, earning $10 to $15 million. While SWEETBACK was smashing records, Melvin went to Broadway that same year and produced Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death based on one of his albums. The play won Tony Awards and was followed up by his play Don’t Play Us Cheap.
Melvin is credited with causing white studios to see there was money to be made in black films. This resulting explosion of black films drew the label “Blaxploitation,” however, SWEETBACK was not a Blaxploitation film as incorrectly labeled by Wikipedia. Melvin’s role and enduring legacy opened doors in Hollywood and Broadway for a lot of Black actors, writers and directors to be able to work and participate in the film industry. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in this regard. He continues to reinvent himself, recently demonstrating his talents as a musical performer and visual artist. In 2001, Melvin was awarded the Ordre National de Legion d’honneur, France’s highest honor, declaring him a chevalier or knight of the French Republic. Ironically, he was also nominated to the MPAA after the “Oscars So White” controversy.
On February 2, 2018, SWEETBACK kicked off BAMcinematek’s film series “Fight the Power: Black Super Heroes on Film,” leading up to the premiere of the Black Panther film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music theater complex. The theater was packed. Melvin is truly a super hero to Black Americans for his bold challenges to white power structure and contributions to the arts and culture. 2021 will mark the 50-year anniversary of SWEETBACK and the achievements of Black filmmakers will be due to his trailblazing efforts, especially the blockbuster Black Panther movie. At 85 years young, Melvin continues to amaze us. He is a true Renaissance Man for all time.