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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Screening on Film
Directed by Melvin Van Peebles.
With Simon Chukster, Melvin Van Peebles, Hubert Scales.
US, 1971, 35mm, color, 97 min.

“You offer pretty good news to me, slappin’ up on some white cops. I’m gonna say a Black ‘Ave Maria’ for you.”

In this legendary work of grindhouse political cinema (not to mention personal willpower), Melvin van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, and performed the music, the stunts, and the sex scenes. His title character is a male prostitute who intervenes when he sees a young Black Panther being beaten up by two white cops. As a result he becomes a fugitive. But the black community rises up to help him elude the corrupt and racist state.

Van Peebles makes his technical limitations into virtues, drawing on Godardian inspiration for his hallucinogenic editing style that embraces the non-professionalism of his amateur cast and crew and the breakneck chaos of the shoot. And yet while the film is funny and decidedly insane (according to one legend, van Peebles contracted gonorrhea during a sex scene, filed a claim with the Director’s Guild health insurance for an “on-the-job injury,” and used the money to buy more film) it also has to be taken seriously, as an attempt to express a voice that in 1971 had almost no voice at all in the movies.

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Furious Cinema '70-'77

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Say It Loud!
The Black Cinema Revolution

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