Melvin Van Peebles, godfather of Black cinema, dies at 89

  • FILE - Gotham Tribute Honors recipient, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles attends the 18th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

    FILE - Gotham Tribute Honors recipient, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles attends the 18th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. Associated Press

  • FILE - U.S director, actor, screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles is seen during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

    FILE - U.S director, actor, screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles is seen during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. Associated Press

  • FILE - Mario Van Peebles, from left and Melvin Van Peebles arrive at the screening of "The Producers" at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Los Angeles. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)

    FILE - Mario Van Peebles, from left and Melvin Van Peebles arrive at the screening of "The Producers" at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Los Angeles. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Melvin Van Peebles attends History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, May 23, 2016, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

    FILE - Melvin Van Peebles attends History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, May 23, 2016, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - U.S. director, actor, and screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles signs autographs for fans during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

    FILE - U.S. director, actor, and screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles signs autographs for fans during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. Associated Press

  • FILE - U.S director, actor, screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles is seen during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

    FILE - U.S director, actor, screenwriter Melvin Van Peebles is seen during a tribute for his career at the 38th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. Associated Press

  • FILE - Melvin Van Peebles arrives at the world premiere of "Peeples" at the ArcLight Hollywood on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in Los Angeles. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

    FILE - Melvin Van Peebles arrives at the world premiere of "Peeples" at the ArcLight Hollywood on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in Los Angeles. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Mario Van Peebles, from left, Melvin Van Peebles and Mandela Van Peebles attend History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, May 23, 2016, in New York. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

    FILE - Mario Van Peebles, from left, Melvin Van Peebles and Mandela Van Peebles attend History Channel's "Roots" mini-series premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, May 23, 2016, in New York. Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Gotham Tribute Honors recipient, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles attends the 18th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

    FILE - Gotham Tribute Honors recipient, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles attends the 18th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008, in New York. Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/22/2021 8:30 PM

NEW YORK -- Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the 'œblaxploitation' wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.

In statement, his family said that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.

 

'œDad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?" Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. "We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer's mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.'

Sometimes called the 'œgodfather of modern Black cinema,' the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums - playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.

But he was best known for 'œSweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,' one of the most influential movies of its time. The low-budget, art-house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

With its hard-living, tough-talking depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a Black perspective, it set the tone for a genre that turned out dozens of films over the next few years and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.

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'œAll the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,' Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film's release.

'œI could have called it '˜The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback.' But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it's for them,' he told The Associated Press in 2003. 'œSo I said '˜Ba-ad Asssss,' like you really say it.'

Made for around $500,000 (including $50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $14 million at the box office despite an X-rating, limited distribution and mixed critical reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film 'œan outrage.'

Van Peebles, who complained fiercely to the Motion Picture Association over the X-rating, gave the film the tagline: 'œRated X by an all-white jury.'

But in the wake of the its success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out such box office hits as 'œShaft' and 'œSuperfly' that were also known for bringing in such top musicians as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes to work on the soundtracks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Many of Hollywood's versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in both the white and Black press.

'œWhat Hollywood did - they suppressed the political message, added caricature - and blaxploitation was born,' Van Peebles said in 2002. 'œThe colored intelligentsia were not too happy about it.'

In fact, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality coined the phrase 'œblaxploitation' and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among the genre's 21st century fans was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-winning 'œDjango Unchained' was openly influenced by blaxploitation films and spaghetti Westerns.

On Wednesday, a younger generation of Black filmmakers mourned Van Peebles' death. Barry Jenkins, the 'œMoonlight' director, said on Twitter: 'œHe made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame.'

After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to maintain his independence.

'œI'll only work with them on my terms,' he said. 'œI've whipped the man's ass on his own turf. I'm number one at the box office - which is the way America measures things - and I did it on my own. Now they want me, but I'm in no hurry.'

Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated 'œAin't Supposed to Die a Natural Death' and 'œDon't Play Us Cheap.' He later wrote the movie 'œGreased Lighting' starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black race car driver.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a financial self-help guide entitled 'œBold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.'

Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on Aug. 21, 1932, he would later add 'œVan' to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the Air Force, serving as a navigator for three years.

After military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portrait painter, followed by a move to San Francisco, where he started writing short stories and making short films.

Van Peebles soon went to Hollywood, but he was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to Holland to take graduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theatre.

Eventually he gave up his studies and moved to Paris, where he learned he could join the French directors' guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly taught himself the language and wrote several novels.

One he made into a feature film. 'œLa Permission/The Story of the Three Day Pass,' was the story of an affair between a Black U.S. soldier and a French woman. It won the critic's choice award at the San Francisco film festival in 1967, and Van Peebles gained Hollywood's attention.

The following year, he was hired to direct and write the score for 'œWatermelon Man,' the tale of a white bigot (played by comic Godfrey Cambridge in white face) who wakes up one day as a Black man.

With money earned from the project, Van Peebles went to work on 'œSweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.'

Van Peebles' death came just days before the New York Film Festival is to celebrate him with a 50th anniversary of 'œSweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.' Next week, the Criterion Collection is to release the box set 'œMelvin Van Peebles: Essential Films.' A revival of his play 'œAin't Supposed to Die a Natural Death' is also planned to hit Broadway next year, with Mario Van Peebles serving as creative producer.

___

This story has been updated to correct the first name of the comic who stars in 'œWatermelon Man." He is Godfrey Cambridge, not Godfey.

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