A barrage of images crosses the screen: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, lynchings, white firefighters blasting their hoses at civil rights activists. The opening montage of Baadasssss! seems to knock off the style used by that once-polemical director Oliver Stone. The sequence isn’t innovative and suffers due to the low-budget production value of this independent biopic on Melvin Van Peebles and the making of his groundbreaking, controversial and most famous movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Baadasssss! shows us the flip side of Sweetback through the eyes of Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son, who writes, directs and stars in his film about his dad. Mario’s backstage view has its moments both good and bad.
Mario’s Melvin is an uneasy rider. He chomps on one of his signature cigars as he cruises his chopper over the blacktop and through the desert. It’s an image, like others in the film, loaded with symbolism. With his head wrapped in a bandana and his eyes shielded by dark sunglasses, Melvin rides his iron horse through the wasteland of California, the picture of an outlaw, a blend of pirate, runaway slave, desperado and biker. The desert recalls the one Sweetback fled to after killing two corrupt white cops in Sweetback.
In Baadasssss!, Mario’s writing and direction occasionally crosses into stereotypes. Women are mostly sex objects or wives. Melvin’s secretary, Priscilla (model-actress Joy Bryant), could have been popped from the same mold as blaxploitation heroines like Coffy and Foxy Brown. Jews come in two varieties: the Hollywood putz, Howie (Saul Rubinek), who just isn’t down with Sweetback, and the money-grubbing Goldbergs, who own Detroit’s Grand Circus Theatre, and take Sweetback off the marquee during its world premiere after an afternoon of poor box office sales, until a group of Black Panthers buys a block of tickets for the evening show.
TV’s Batman, Adam West, cameos as Bert, a gay producer who seems to appreciate Melvin’s body more than his pitch for Sweetback. Ossie Davis is the uptight father figure that he played with more depth in Jungle Fever.
But somewhere between its spotty surface and its conventional heroic biopic plot structure, there are two unique stories: that of a multiracial film crew forged into a close ad hoc unit by the adversities they face and that of Melvin and Mario successfully finding their way together through the maze of the father and son relationship. Though Baadasssss!’s original title was How to Get the Man’s Foot Out of Your Ass, at heart it seems it’s more about how we come together as a human family.
Opens at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].