‘Filmmaker, author, and actor Melvin Van Peebles was born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up during World War II, he spent his adolescence with his father, a tailor. Van Peebles graduated from Township High School in Phoenix, Illinois, in 1949 and spent a year at West Virginia State College before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University where he earned his B.A. degree in English literature in 1953.
‘During the late 1950s, Van Peebles served three and a half years as a flight navigator in the United States Air Force. After the military, he lived briefly in Mexico and San Francisco where he wrote his first book, The Big Heart, which was about the life of San Francisco’s cable cars and their drivers. Moving to the Netherlands, he studied at the Dutch National Theatre before moving to France in the early 1960s.
‘During this time, Van Peebles wrote several published novels in French, including La Permission in 1967. He filmed this story under the title, The Story of the Three-Day Pass, and it was selected as the French entry in the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival. It earned critical acclaim, which helped him obtain a studio contract with Columbia Pictures. In 1969, Van Peebles returned to the U.S. to direct and score his first Hollywood film Watermelon Man. The film was released in 1970, followed by his independent feature Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, probably his best known work. Some of his other films include Don’t Play Us Cheap in 1973, Identity Crisis in 1989, Gang in Blue in 1996 and Le Conte du ventre plein in 2000.
‘As a playwright and composer, Van Peebles wrote two Broadway hit plays: Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death in 1971 and Don’t Play Us Cheap in 1972, for which he earned a Tony Award nomination. As an actor, Van Peebles has appeared in several films including Robert Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs in 1987 and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther in 1995, which he also wrote and co-produced.
‘In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary entitled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). He has been honored with numerous awards, including a Grammy and a Drama Desk Award. He received the Children’s Live-Action Humanitas Prize for The Day They Came to Arrest the Book in 1987, and in 1999, he was awarded the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.’ — collaged
Melvin Van Peebles @ IMDb
MVP @ instagram
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The Film Comment Podcast: The Maverick Movies of Melvin Van Peebles
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Van Peebles Speaks Candidly On Honors, Criticism
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The place was like a weird-ass museum.
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Classified X (1998) | Narrated by Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles- Interview (Sweet SweetBack…) 1971
Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles interview (1995)
Melvin Van Peebles: “I Said No At First” (2014)
Melvin Van Peebles I try not to be so heavy with these interview things. I try to loosen up because the thing I’m most known for Sweetback, which started the whole thing.
Lee Ann Norman Yeah. I think that is what most people know about you, but when I was preparing for our conversation I was surprised to learn all of these other things about you, like that you studied literature in school and you’ve published novels, stories, and plays, and you make music and art—all of these things. But you started out as a writer, correct?
MVP No. (laughter)
LAN Okay, so tell me your arts story. How did you get into making stuff?
MVP I actually started out as a business boy at ten. I was on the South Side of Chicago. We lived on 58th Street, which was the toughest street in America at the time. We were between Calumet and Prairie. My dad had a tailor shop in the basement of our building right next to the train (but there’s not a train there anymore). By the time I was ten, I’d seen nine people killed right there in the street. It was tough! The neighborhood was run by a cop called Two Gun Pete, and he’d shoot you if you blinked! (laughter) That was just the world. So we moved to the suburbs. I walked to this big high school—about a mile and a half walk. In the winter—I laugh now about this sometimes because the winters were so bad—I could ice skate to school. (laughter)
LAN Winter in Chicago is no joke!
MVP Right! There were fifty-three black kids out of the 2,800 kids or something.
LAN What school?
MVP We were near Harvey, Illinois, the little part right outside it that was called Phoenix. The other black kids there had parents with big-time jobs working at the post office. That was big for us then in the ’40s. (laughter)
I basically lived two lives. There was this white community at school, and even the black kids were like whites, but me—I had to get on the train every day and go to work back on 58th street. It was a whole different world, but I didn’t know that.
LAN It’s just what you did.
MVP Right. That’s just what I did. I was small, and I’ve haven’t grown that much since, (laughter) but I ran my dad’s shop. He got a Coca-Cola box for me to stand on so I could reach the cash register. Then he could go out and make deliveries. To the workers there, I was the boss. They called me “Pee Wee.” When my dad would leave, I’d say, “Alright. Get everything done before Dad comes back.” They were good about doing their work, except when ladies would wander in. They’d go back in the clothes racks to do the funky monkey. Sometimes they would say, “Hey Pee Wee, come over here,” then they’d take my hand and you know … (laughter)
LAN Oh my gosh! They were trying to get you in trouble. (laughter)
MVP I wasn’t nothin’ but eleven years old. (laughter) I was waaaaay ahead of my time. Instead of paying me, my dad started giving me clothes that people didn’t pick up from the shop, and I’d sell them on 58th Street. I look back and think that it’s hilarious now, but back then, it was just my life.
LAN So how did you come to painting after being a little business man?
MVP One day we went to the Art Institute on a school field trip, and the guide was showing us one of the paintings. He asked us if we knew what it was called, and I did—me, the little black kid. I got a scholarship for painting in a summer program right there on the spot. Being the size that I was, I didn’t go outside and play with the other kids. I was always reading. That’s how I knew the answer. I was a living in the hood, hood, hood of the hood, but I learned how to handl as they say in Yiddish.
LAN That’s interesting. I feel like so much of what you’ve done in your career has been in that spirit. You wanted to do something, so you just figured out what you needed to do and did it. How did you find your way into filmmaking?
MVP Oh no, that has nothing to do with film shit.
LAN So how did you get end up making movies?
MVP Okay, I’ll just explain to you what happened. When I finished grade school, I was ten, but my mother wouldn’t let me go to the high school because I was so young. She thought I was too young, and she didn’t let me go until a couple years later. So I started high school when I was twelve, and I graduated when I was fifteen and that’s still—young. I went to one college for a year, and said to my mom that I wasn’t going back there. She said to me that it was because I was around too many white people, so she wanted to send me to a real school, a colored university. Down in West Virginia or something like that. She’d never been to college. Nobody in my family had gone to college.
LAN So how did she choose that one for you?
MVP Because it was colored. That’s it.
LAN (laughter) Okay, so it didn’t matter which one, just that it was black.
MVP Yeah. But the kids were kids, and I wasn’t a kid. I was a grown midget. (laughter) So I did the things you do, I joined a fraternity, and got kicked out—well, no, I walked out about a week later. You know, the way you learn: they paddle you, and I was like, “Fuck this shit.”
LAN Yeah. That’s why I never did it. I didn’t understand why I should let someone beat me up to be my friend. (laughter)
MVP Yeah, homey don’t play that shit. (laughter) I was a loner down there, and they didn’t have the best equipment or textbooks. I’d come from one of the best high schools in the nation, so I was way ahead of everyone else, but to them, I was just this midget coward. One of the teachers that I would talk to said to me once that I didn’t have to go all the way back across campus after class, but I could stay with him. He wanted to do the funky monkey, and I was like: get the fuck outta here. (laughter).
LAN You do seem to keep yourself busy. What are some of the things you’re working on right now that you’re excited about?
MVP Well, at the moment, I’m thinking of doing a couple of plays. Of course, everything I usually have to do it myself. Someone will say: he can’t do that, and I have to prove them wrong. (laughter) I’m writing a bunch of books about this and that, and I have a couple of musical offers.
LAN I mentioned before that I see a lot of these themes in your life and work: make yourself, do it yourself, don’t let other people put you in a box. Just by looking at a few pages of the play you’ve shown me, it makes me wonder if you ever think of yourself in a political way. For some people, living one’s life in a way that goes against what society might say you are supposed to be or how you’re supposed to behave is radical. It’s brave to do your own thing. You probably don’t think that you have an agenda or political perspective about the way you live your life, but I wonder, where does that feeling come from?
MVP When you’re out there pulling a wagon with clothes trying to sell them, it changes you.
LAN It makes me think of that saying: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I feel like that’s so you. Is it about survival?
MVP No. It’s not survival. Fuck that, no. I’m just tryin’ to get shit done.
10 of Melvin Van Peebles’s 17 films
The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)
‘Living as an ex-pat in Paris in the late 1950s, Melvin Van Peebles taught himself the language and wrote five books in French. The fifth, 1967’s “La Permission,” became the basis for his 1968 feature-film debut, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.” A commentary on France’s contradictory attitudes about race, it’s an exploration of an interracial relationship between a Black American GI stationed in France (Turner, played by Harry Baird) and a white Parisian woman (Miriam, played by Nicole Berger).
‘With “Three-Day Pass,” Peebles didn’t set out to make a radical film. It’s a boy-meets-girl with a twist: the romance is interracial, which was very much a screen taboo at the time of its release — one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. “Three-Day Pass” also subverted Hollywood interracial love stories like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” a year prior, starring Sidney Poitier. Unlike the insufferably tame “Dinner,” Turner and Miriam dance intimately, drink, frolic on the beach, and even have sex. In 1968 America, that was gutsy filmmaking.
‘Before “Three-Day Pass,” there hadn’t been quite a film like it made by a Black filmmaker, with such freewheeling spontaneity. The few studio films that featured Black characters were often based on white liberal fantasies that fulfilled notions about what a “good Negro” should be. The Black lead was typically male and neutered — figuratively, of course. Van Peebles shattered that illusion with films like “Three-Day Pass” and the incendiary “Sweet Sweetback” three years later. It became a reference point for radical, subversive Black cinema at a time when Black Americans were primed for it, post-Civil Rights movement.’ — Tambay Obenson
THE STORY OF A THREE DAY PASS – Virtual Q&A with Mario Van Peebles & Ashley Clark
Watermelon Man (1970)
‘Melvin Van Peebles’s 1970 film Watermelon Man exemplifies both traditional methods of representing blacks, as well as the ways black independent filmmakers negated these representations. This Hollywood studio film tells the story of Jefferson Gerber, a white, bigoted insurance agent and his overnight transformation into a black man. Gerber endures several instances of discrimination from his family, co-workers, and neighbors, and he desperately attempts to regain his whiteness. However, each of his efforts fail, and by the end of the film, Gerber comes to claim his new identity as a black man and becomes a militant advocate for black civil rights.’ — WUSTL Digital Gateway
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
‘”This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” declare the opening titles of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. When it was released, 50 years ago this month, that was a lot of them. Melvin Van Peebles’s landmark movie arrived at a time when the civil rights movement had barely translated into tangible progress, and was even in danger of being rolled back, what with the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and so many others. The Brothers and Sisters had also had enough of the Man’s movies: the only African American representation Hollywood permitted were characters who were either subservient to white folks or super-exemplary, such as Sidney Poitier.
‘Sweetback is often credited as the first “blaxploitation” movie but it doesn’t really fit the description. It paved the way: legend has it that Shaft (released the same year, by a mainstream studio) changed its hero from white to black as a result of it. And it could certainly be seen as exploitative – of children (13-year-old Mario played the young Sweetback in a sex scene that the BFI reissue of the film had to censor under the Protection of Children Act) and women (most of whom appear naked and in awe of Sweetback’s sexual prowess). But it put artistic and commercial power in the hands of black film-makers for the first time, which is the opposite of exploitation.
‘Van Peebles preferred to call it “the first Black Power movie”. He opened the door for not only black cinema (Spike Lee would follow in his DIY footsteps with She’s Gotta Have It), but independent cinema in general. Despite its lo-fi scrappiness, Sweetback remains radical. It really did stick it to the Man.’ — Steve Rose
Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972)
‘At the time Melvin Van Peebles came up with the story for Don’t Play Us Cheap, he was living in Paris, but had gotten a summer job in New York City making a documentary. Along with the job, Van Peebles was given an apartment in a posh neighborhood on the lower east side of Manhattan. On a very hot day, Van Peebles was lounging out in front of the apartment, and an old black lady came down the street and told Van Peebles that she wanted some water and to use the bathroom. The woman thanked Van Peebles, and a few days later, Van Peebles received a telephone call from her inviting him to a party she was throwing for her niece. When he returned to France, he thought of what would happen if these wonderful, kind, open people were invaded by imps from hell bent on destroying their party. The story became the basis for a novel, Harlem Party, and later a French-language musical play, which Van Peebles later translated into English, and made as a film in 1973.’ — collaged
Identity Crisis (1989)
‘A rapper finds himself possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer; frequently switching personalities. The problem with this one is a way more convoluted than necessary screenplay. Melvin Van Peebles pops up onscreen every once in a while as the narrator speaking directly to the audience and at one point he must’ve gotten the sense that the plot was getting out of control because he straight up says to the audience at one point “If you can’t follow what’s going on, don’t worry about it, just make like me and fake it and you’ll soon catch on” (or something to that effect) If the director of the movie has to straight up tell his viewers not to stress because they can’t follow what’s going on in the story, that’s a clue right there that the narrative got away from him!’ — mattstechel
w/ Mario Van Peebles Gang in Blue (1996)
‘Gang In Blue is based on the real life investigations of several US police forces for racism and corruption. This production focuses on one of these police forces where Michael Rhoades is a new recruit who discovers much to his horror, a band of little Hitlers known as the ‘Phantoms’. They let Rhoades know almost straight away that he is not wanted there and when he discovers corruption is rife he finds he is the target of a vicious campaign to set him up.’ — Scott Dawson
Le Conte du ventre plein (1999)
‘A closed-minded conservative couple masquerade as liberal do-gooders in late 60’s France. With orders piling up at their bistro, The Full Belly, Loretta and Henri, self-described “pillars of the community,” hire Diamantine as a waitress in order to give a poor black orphan a break. At home, they tell their trusting, new live-in employee that she’s “one of the family,” yet in town they encourage widespread disapproval of her. When they convince her to carry an extended joke to full term – pretending she’s pregnant – Diamantine, and a slightly shady friend of the couple, Jan, become entangled in an elaborate charade.’ — IMDb
The Real Deal (2002)
‘A documentary short about the making of the cult movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Son.’ — IMDb
Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha (2008)
‘It’s grand that a physical, mindful force of 1960s American alternative cinema like Melvin Van Peebles can tell a story at the age of 75 about being an anti-Hollywood “maverick” with an epochal success like 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song.” With “Confessions of A Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha,” the grand old man and inveterate trickster figure becomes an unregenerate youth forever on the run. Based on his 1982 Broadway production, “Waltz of the Stork,” this partly musical semi-autobiographical fantasia uses the lower rungs of digital-video imagery to compile Van Peeble’s imagination from boyhood to middle age to mixed result. “Ex-Doofus-Itchy” is a mass of hardly digested material about twentieth-century African-American cultural experience that rings both true and deadly. Peebles looks tired. He’s lived a life. Then he made this movie.’ — Ray Pride
Melvin Van Peebles on Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha
Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail (2012)
‘Music video for at the time unreleased new Melvin Van Peebles album titled “Nahh… Nahh Mofo”. Features Van Peebles performing his 1970 song in 2012 with his band wid Laxative in New York City while he is haunted by visions of Lilly.’ — IMDb
p.s. Hey. ** Niko, Hi, Niko. Cool, I’m happy that you’ve found ‘God Jr.’ to be of help to you. The last section of that novel is my favorite thing I’ve ever written. In theory, and in my head, your premise/plan to use the prose to have your current consciousness haunt your younger body sounds inspired. And your description of how you foresee it working is really gorgeous. Wow. I’m so on board, for whatever that’s worth. Yes, I’d be very happy to read the translation of your first novel and confer about it when you like and if that would be helpful. Do you have my email address? I forget. If not, let me know. Forge on, sir. ** _Black_Acrylic, It’s true, there’s a proto-punk quality to her poetry. I read an essay about her work in those terms years ago, but I don’t remember where. In print. That’s very, very excellent news that you qualify for that med Siponimod! Even if it keeps you stuck in Leeds a little longer, as much as I’m sure that’s really disappointing. Have a great day, tough guy. ** Misanthrope, Well, tentative very good ness about David’s therapy move, but forgive me if I delay the celebratory fireworks for a while. ** Bill, Hi. No, your first attempt didn’t lodge it. God, this blog is a quirky mess. Ah, my brain meets your brain and … zeitgeist! Don’t think I’ve seen ‘Days’, or have I? Good to know. ** Dominik, Hi!!! I’m happy you liked her poems, maestro. They’re tough cookies. Most people I know here in Paris got through the second shot pretty scott free, so hopefully you’ll be fine by the law of averages. I think I’m almost back to normal now, but the effects of our hot weather at the moment makes self-diagnosing a bit confusing. Ha ha, yes, re: the … spaciousness. Megan Boyle! Nice! Love screwing my head off like the lid of a jar, carefully extracting my hatred of hot weather, and screwing it back on, G. ** Jack Skelley, Hey, Jack, you mutha! You’ve got two Ai poems that you’ve probably already read now in your assignment for Saturday, so you’re a little more free! I can’t find anything on my desk that’s older than a day or two, basically. Someone said it looks like those friendly monsters in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. See you fairly pronto! ** David Ehrenstein, Speaking of, you probably saw that Alan Midgett died yesterday, RIP. ** Brian, Hey, Brian! Really glad the poems hit home. Thank you for the co-sign of the opinion that you characterised much more cogently than I. Here’s Luther Price Day. It’s an odd Day. Oh, okay, I thought maybe you would chaperone your brother or something. I don’t know what I was thinking. My high school prom was just an excuse to sneak outside and do drugs under the football bleachers. My school somehow got a band that was very big at the time, Loggins and Messina — later to birth the irksome, short-term 80s rock star Kenny Loggins — to play the prom. And they did sucketh. Did you find awesome or relatively awesome things to do since we last spoke? Not me, but it’s still morning here, and I seem to have most of my marbles back, so … watch out! ** Okay. Please spend the local portion of your day with the films of Melvin Van Peebles, won’t you? What do you say? See you tomorrow.