What I Learned from Watching . . . Baadassssss!

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Mario van Peebles directs Baadasssss! (2003) and stars as his father, Melvin van Peebles, in this docu-drama about Melvin’s efforts at creating the groundbreaking independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! (1971), which knocked down barriers for black actors and filmmakers and had a mostly minority crew.

No matter what your race, creed or national origin, if you’ve ever tried to carry out a difficult project that few but yourself and a hardcore group of friends believed in, you’ll relate to Mario’s film and Melvin’s story, and if you’re planning a difficult project that you’re committed to but others seek to curb your enthusiasm in various ways, you must see this film for inspiration. It’s a combination of African-American cinema history, a loving tribute from a son to his father, a cautionary tale and a story of what can happen when one person has a dream and simply refuses to give up.

Here are three things I’ve learned from watching Baadasssss!:

1.       If you don’t believe in your project whole-heartedly, no one else will.

In Baadasssss!, Melvin (Mario) has the backing of a major studio as long as he’s making comedies that make money, but when he decides to make a film with a bad-ass black hero fighting racism and police violence in America using any means necessary the studio drops him and he’s on his own to raise the money independently. After several misadventures with would-be backers, Melvin decides to make the film with his own money, against everyone’s advice, including his agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), and his hippie best friend, Bill (Rainn Wilson), who then gets on board if he can be a producer. Melvin goes full-tilt, creates a lean shooting schedule, gathers his crew, scouts locations and even has to battle the voices in his own head warning him that he’s risking everything by putting all his money on the line.

Even his film’s main character, Sweetback himself, appears to Melvin throughout Baadasssss!, chiding him for his recklessness. When he describes the plot to his son, Mario (Khleo Thomas), Mario’s response is: “Who’d wanna see that?” Melvin presses through the doubts of others, and even with his unswerving belief in the project and what it stands for, it’s a Herculean effort that takes all his money, energy and nearly even his health. However, even when Melvin faces all the resistance the world seems to offer, he doesn’t back down. Win or lose, he’s all-in, to the bitter (or will it be sweet?) end.

Some efforts just demand all that you have, and if you’re willing to give that much to it, others will eventually believe in it, too.

 

2.       Make sure your team is fully committed.

At the start of production, Melvin gathers his team: a mostly non-union group made up of blacks, Latinos, some women, and a few white folks, including a married couple who usually work in porno doing make-up and camera and a union sound man who’s risking his career to help out. The boom man and security guy, Big T (Terry Crews) announces that he doesn’t want to take orders from the white sound man, Tommy David (Ralph P. Martin) and Melvin reminds him that his “big ass has been taking orders from Whitey for over two hundred years,” so a few more weeks won’t hurt. At the time, unions were all-white, so Melvin takes pains to make it look like he’s making a black pornographic film so union bosses won’t bother to examine his project too closely.

Melvin has to mediate a certain amount of discord between the white and minority members of the crew at different points throughout the story, a reminder that race is a huge factor not only in the film he’s making but in the making of the film itself. He announces at the first meeting that this group isn’t supposed to get along at all, let alone work together, but that’s what they’ll have to do to make this happen. If anyone isn’t up for it and wants to leave, they’re perfectly free to do so and no hard feelings. One young white woman leaves but everyone else stays. If it weren’t for his hard-core team, willing to put aside their individual differences to work for a common goal, the film would never happen.

Late in the film, when one young white guy who’s been hired to help Melvin edit, walks out for a higher paying gig, Melvin loses it. He’s spent all of his money, and is in danger of losing everything, including sight in one of his eyes because of the long hours and grueling race to complete the film. This young man was brought in late in the game, hadn’t gone through all the trials and tribulations the others had gone through with Melvin, and thus just wasn’t as invested in the outcome.

As Melvin says near the end: “Trial by fire will singe your ass, but it also bonds.” The bond with the others on the team endures, and Melvin overcomes being left in the lurch to fight another day. And fight he must, but it’s worth it.

 

3.       If others are looking to you to be the boss, you must BE THE BOSS!

As the writer, director, producer and star of the film (he only plays the lead in Sweet Sweetback because other actors he auditions insists on more lines), Melvin has to be fully in charge and when disasters occur, he has to be the one to make the difficult decisions. When the script supervisor, Clyde (David Alan Grier) makes a decision to spend money hiring a stuntman for something that Melvin himself could do, jeopardizing Melvin’s ability to purchase more film stock, Melvin fires him right then and there, on the spot. Clyde overstepped his bounds and made a very bad call, so he’s out of there.

One of the more controversial calls Melvin makes is letting Mario play young Sweetback losing his virginity to a prostitute. Mario’s mother, Sandra (Nia Long), is appalled not only by that but also that Melvin wants Mario to cut his afro so it will look like he has ringworm, instead of investing in a “skin wig” that the make–up artist could create. “He wants to be an actor; he’s an actor,” Melvin insists. He says he’s not going to coddle Mario and that Mario should learn what it takes to make it in the business and even more, in life. Mario ends up playing young Sweetback, but Melvin relents and lets him use the skin wig, one of few concessions Melvin makes in his drive to bring his vision to life.

Another controversial decision Melvin makes is to allow most of the crew, including Big T, Tommy and Jose (Paul Rodriguez) to stay in jail one weekend when they’ve been arrested for having expensive film equipment on their truck, which the police don’t believe is theirs. They’ll have to wait until Monday to straighten things out. Bill is livid and wants to go get them out immediately, but Melvin knows that if a black hipster like himself and long-haired hippie Bill go make a big fuss, it’ll only drag things out further. Melvin decrees they’ll wait until Monday, when Bill will put on a suit and calmly go and sort it out, in order to get the production back on track.

Melvin certainly isn’t looking to make enemies but he’s not looking to make friends, either. His over-riding mission is to bring the radical message of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! to the big screen, to black audiences, to an America where “separate but equal” is a very recent memory or still current reality in parts of the South. He succeeds, but not without first staring into the abyss at possible failure.

Win or lose, if it’s your project you have to be fearless and make the hard decisions. If you’re in charge, be large and in charge!

In the end, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! was a hit: the film made real money; the Black Panthers made it compulsory viewing for all members; films such as Shaft, which was originally going to star a white detective, went with a black male lead instead. Sweet Sweetback was the first film to use its soundtrack as a marketing tool, featuring a then-unknown band called Earth, Wind & Fire that subsequently became world famous.

Mario’s film, Baadasssss!, is a true hero’s journey about his father’s experience. Mario had a front row seat and shares what it was like to see Melvin’s dream become reality. If you’re facing obstacles in making your dream become real, watching this film will provide you with inspiration and some ideas about what it might take to get things done. Keep the faith.