03 April 2008

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971
******* / 10

Synopsis: Sweetback was raised in a bordello, more or less, and as an adult he makes a living by performing in the bordello's nightly sex shows. But Sweetback's race consciousness comes explosively alive when he witnesses two white cops beating up a young, black social activist--he realizes that he's finally "had enough of the man" (as the film's dedication says). Sweetback's decision that night makes him a fugitive, and he spends the rest of the movie running...literally.

(image from: http://www.geocities.com/seributra_d/a_car70s.html)

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a lot of things. For one, it's pure 1971. The non-stop Earth, Wind, and Fire proto-funk soundtrack, the insanely unstable camera, the road-trip plot, and, of course, the social criticism fit smoothly into the 1960s-1970s American milieu and contributed to a new wave of American cinema. In fact, while watching this movie, I could definitely see the many ways in which later "classics," like Taxi Driver, built on the rough, sometimes almost amateurish camerawork and editing of Sweet Sweetback.

But I don't mean to call this movie amateur--that doesn't come close to doing it justice. Van Peebles claims in various interviews that, a.) he didn't know what he was doing and b.) he was intentionally creating a counter-hegemonic aesthetic. Maybe both are true. In any event, Sweet Sweetback's photography and montage offer everything that self-taught cinema can possibly bring to the table--incredibly frenetic, exciting camerawork that really does break through the staid conventions to give the viewer the impression of physical movement and emotional intensity, but also confusing scene changes and awkward, maddening repetitions and time glitches. In the end sum, though, it works. Sweetback's endless running is matched, heartbeat for heartbeat by the hand-held camera, the bizarre editing, and the soundtrack, and I felt out-of-breath for much of the movie.

Is it a new Black Cinematic Aesthetic? I don't know--truthfully, I'm skeptical. For one thing, that sounds about as stupid as trying to identify a White Cinematic Aesthetic. I suppose you could say that most of the conventions of modern cinema, from continuity editing to the 180 degree rule, are staples of the normative White Aesthetic, but it's hard for me to see that as ethnically or culturally based. Plus, countless filmmakers have always broken these "rules," even in otherwise conventional films. Lars Von Trier, to use a contemporary example, can refuse to follow any of them, but he's still White, last time I checked.

The back of my DVD quotes Van Peebles as saying that Sweet Sweetback gave black people a chance to see "their rhythms and speech and pace" reflected in a movie. I'm in no position to say if that's true, but I've been taught that it's always unnecessarily constraining to say that an entire people group, 30 million strong in the US and even larger when you consider the global collection "black" cultures, shares the same rhythms, speech, and pace. While I'm uncomfortable agreeing that Van Peebles has somehow locked into a Black Aesthetic, I am more than heppy to celebrate Sweet Sweetback as a film classic and a boxoffice success that achieved its greatness without the interference of the white, Hollywood power machine.

(I do think it may be valid to say that Sweet Sweetback helped to establish the music video aesthetic! I'm not saying that as a put-down--I'm just saying that the rhythms and crazy visual effects of this film have found their way into many a music vid over the past 35 years.)

Besides the aesthetics of the film, the social commentary is mostly strong and vital, even today. A lot of Van Peebles's "asides" offer quick, hard shots of criticism, like the white police commissioner telling two black cops that they can be a credit to their race if they catch Sweetback or the white motorcycle gang members sticking with their race (even when that means joining ranks with the police) when their situation finally comes down to black vs. white. And, of course, the overall narrative structure of the film puts a black man at the center of the action--his decisions and his behavior dictate the responses of the entire white establishment, from police to media to the average white guy on the street--all white-dom mobilizes in an effort to track down this black man who's forgotten his "rightful place" in the social order. It's a powerful visual image with even more powerful social implications. It was stirring for me to watch, even 35+ years after the movie's release.

In Classified X, an extended interview with Melvin Van Peebles, in which he offers a critical race history of Hollywood, he claims that the blaxploitation genre that grew out of Sweet Sweetback took the imagery of his film and made it counter-revolutionary. I haven't seen enough blaxploitation films to say much about that claim (in fact, I think I've only seen one, Shaft), but there are moments in this film that raise questions for me. For instance, why is it that Sweetback is given only three sources of personal power: violence, running, and sex? It seems almost a parody of white, racist stereotypes of black men. Does this movie claim those stereotypes and reclaim them, in a sense? I guess I can buy that. But it was weird for me to see the movie begin with what I guess was the 12-year-old Sweetback having sex with a grown woman, and then to see Sweetback pause in his flight to screw just about every woman he meets. The high (or low) point was when he chooses "fucking" as his weapon of choice in a duel with a female (of course!) motorcycle gang member. I can only guess that, after decades of seeing black male sexuality edited out of the Hollywood repertoire, or used only as a vague and shadowy threat to justify white violence against black men, it may be liberatory to see a proud, powerful black man with an active libido and an almost super-heroic sexual prowess. Sometimes, though, I thought it seemed too comical and rather limiting, almost as if to say to white viewers: yup, you're right--what these guys are really good at is sex, sex, sex. It almost seems insulting, even if I can see the way in which it's empowering at the same time.

But that just underscores the mixed bag that is Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Both thematically and aesthetically, the movie is exciting in part because it doesn't make a whole ton of effort to be slick, coherent, or consistent. Its rawness is its strength and its weakness. A remake of Sweetback, made with an intention to "fix" the flaws, would be a complete disaster because any effort to smooth the edges of this film would also blunt its razor sharp blade.

What can I say by way of summary? How does one "wrap up" a movie that refuses to be wrapped up? Well, I'll try: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is both politically and aesthetically raw, fresh, challenging, and flawed--but ultimately very powerful. As the movie unfolds, we see both "the white community" and "the black community" unite in opposition to each other and, in the process, we get a firey-eyed reminder of how power structure in this country is maintained everyday, in the biggest and smallest of political actions.

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