Saturday, June 12, 2004


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

With a title about that, I may as well not worry about my mother reading this review and scolding me about my language, and just say that I'm not sure how you make this film without it disappearing up its own ass. That Mario Van Peebles somehow manages to do so is a testament to his skill.

That's not just a cute lead, either - both on-screen and behind the scenes, a central theme here is parents, children, and how they regard each other. Mario Van Peebles plays his father Melvin Van Peebles, in a movie about the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song - in which he played his father's character as a child. So, when the Melvin character states, in voiceover, that this was the first time young Mario had called him "dad", it's natural to wonder whose memory this is (to further muddy matters, Mario co-wrote the screenplay based upon Melvin's book). When the focus is on Melvin as a man and as a parent, the fact that this is a story about a father and son told by the son from the father's point of view can jolt one out of the film's world.

When the movie focuses on Melvin Van Peebles, Filmmaker, it's a good, self-contained story. Van Peebles has just been offered a three-picture deal with Columbia, but knows that he'll be their token negro, asked to make the kind of comedies that offend him, portraying blacks and other minorities as clowns. Instead, he decides to go it along, making the kind of uncompromised movie he wants to see. He's smart enough to know that he can't just make some small, arty flick; he has to aim for entertainment. In order to make budget (no way he can afford a union crew), he recruits family, friends, and people from the porn industry. When his financing falls through, he winds up using his own money, making every decision more and more dangerous.

Baadasssss! shows how, in the early 1970s, before Cassevetes, way before Tarantino, how truly independent (and thus frightening) "independent film" really was. Melvin thought of himself a sort of revolutionary, a quaint-sounding idea when viewed from the thirtieth century, but fitting with the culture of the time and, in the end, somewhat true. Sweet Sweetback didn't change the world as a whole, but its success made the movie industry aware that there was a huge potential audience for movies targeted to the black audience.

One thing that makes Baadasssss! interesting is that while often a story about an artist driven to create focuses on an obsession with the end result. And while Mario does recreate scenes and how the movie was made, the actual movie Melvin makes is clearly less important than how he creates it, with a racially diverse crew and his full control. Melvin becomes something of a monster at times, taking perhaps too much upon himself and neither trusting nor forgiving the people he hired to help him make the movie. The audience is left to wonder whether Melvin was a jerk, was in the right, was pushed too hard by the strain, or whether perhaps some combination of these was true but his uglier qualities were needed to get the job done. We can't know, since we've only got one way it happened and one way it turned out.

The cast is, to a member, great. Mario gives a performance that would be fascinating even without his connection to the role, and for the most part manages to avoid both hero worship and resentment. Joy Bryant is entertaining but sincere as Priscilla, Melvin's girl Friday; Ossie Davis is still on top of his game as Melvin's father. David Allen Grier gives the best performance I can remember from him as Clyde Houston, the assistant director and production manager for Sweet Sweetback who was ecstatic to get out of doing porn. Saul Rubinek is good as the Agent who really isn't sure how to handle Melvin's decision to walk away from the studios. Khleo Thomas and Penny Bae Bridges have the job of portraying Melvin's children Mario and Megan, and serve as the movie's anchor.

Baadasssss! is a good movie about the madness that went into creating an independent film before independent film became cool. I'm pretty sure my feelings on it would be less complicated if it had been made by someone other than Mario Van Peebles, but just as with how Melvin made his movie, there's no way to tell how necessary that is.

No comments: