Melvin Van Peebles, Legendary Filmmaker and Actor, Dies at 89
Just days before his classic film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was slated for a special revival screening at the New York Film Festival, and less than a week before the Criterion Collection will release a box set of his “essential films,” legendary filmmaker and actor Melvin Van Peebles has died. He was 89 years old.
Van Peebles’ passing was announced by the Criterion Collection, who said he died on Tuesday night “at home with family.”
In a statement (via Indiewire), Van Peebles’ son Mario, who followed his father into the film business and became a director and actor in his own right, said “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? 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.”
The elder Van Peebles worked a series of jobs before becoming an author and then a filmmaker. He made his first feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, while living in France; when it got international attention, he came to Hollywood and made Watermelon Man, a satire about a racist white man who wakes up one day and discovers he now has black skin.
Watermelon Man was a major success, and Van Peebles could have stayed in Hollywood and made a lot of money making impersonal films after that. Instead, he struck out on his own and self-financed Sweet Sweetback, which became an even bigger hit. Today it’s considered one of the most influential independent movies in history. It also helped launch the blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s, although some critics and scholars feel Sweet Sweetback technically falls outside the bounds of the genre.
Over the course of his long career, Van Peebles was also an actor, poet, composer, and musician — a true Renaissance man. He will be missed, but he has left behind a remarkable legacy. That Criterion Collection box set — which includes Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback, and 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap — is sadly all too timely now.