Oh baby, we’re back to some sweet, sweet blaxploitation!
There are few in the sub-genre of blaxploitation that are as highly regarded as Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It carries the distinction of being included as part of the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. It’s also the first to be labeled as “blaxploitation”. So if you want to go back to the beginning of the phenomenon, well, you can’t go back further than this.
On top of that, we have a soundtrack by Earth, Wind, and Fire as well as a fucking kick ass poster that exclaims that this movie was rated X – by an ALL WHITE JURY. Fuck you, white people! How dare you give a harrowing tale of survival in the face of racism an X rating!
I think this movie also breaks the record for the number of S’s in the title with a whopping 9. That’s two more than the 70s monster movie Sssssss! And to add to that – fuck you, Sssssss! Don’t think I won’t someday swing back around to you.
So, this movie comes right out of the gates super hot. First, it is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who are fed up with the man. And you know what? I’m on board for that. The man has been a real dick to anyone who isn’t, like, I dunno, upper-middle class? But I digress. We meet young Sweetback (played by Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario) being taken in by some kindly prostitutes at a brothel where he basically inhales all the stew they put in front of him. He begins working there and gets an unexpected lesson in the birds and the bees when one of the prostitutes rapes the little dude. At first, he’s like “I dunno what’s going on here” and it’s made real clear that when his body starts to figure that shit out for itself, he’s got a monster hog. He gets the name “Sweetback” for having a “sweet Sweetback” as he makes the woman orgasm with little effort.
In the present, a couple cops show up at what seems to be a Crenshaw version of a beatnik hangout where a couple women are doing some performance art. The cops talk to the guy who runs the place saying that there’s a dead body that they need to investigate, but there aren’t many leads. They want to “borrow” one of the blacks since the commissioner doesn’t understand as the guys on the street do that the people in this part of town aren’t to blame for the murder. If they could bring a guy downtown, they’d look good and no harm would be done.
Okay, I know I’m really supposed to be a little put off by the request of the police to “borrow” a black dude to look good to their superiors and basically toss him in a holding cell, but I’m honestly way more interested in whatever this fucking performance is:
Seriously… This is basically in a living room. It’s a mix audience. The girl in the dress is, I think, supposed to be a little girl who is approached by a second woman wearing a fake beard. And he picks her up and they fuck. But that’s not all! What appears to be a drag queen comes out with a sparkler claiming to be a fairy godmother and does like a thing that basically ends with Sweetback fucking a girl. In front of everyone. What is this and how can I see it all?
The fairy godmother offers Sweetback up for anyone in the audience. When a white girl goes for it, because he has a monster hog and no whitey is gonna compare, it’s suggested she should not because the cops are there. Oh yeah… It used to be really, really, REALLY frowned upon for whites and blacks to be together. Instead of getting some off the really hot girl who volunteered, Sweetback is given up to the cops to fill their request. From the backseat of the cops’ car, he kinda gets a pretty good look at some not so great stuff. Like a Black Panther named Mu-Mu who gets picked up, then insults the cops, only to be beaten up by the white guys.
There’s a thing that Melvin Van Peebles does constantly in this movie. So much so it is the predominant image used on the poster and cover to the home video release. He has this stare that is almost unsettling and terrifying. It’s like all his history and all the bad shit he’s ever dealt with is just seething under his skin. It’s part fiery intensity and part exhaustion over a life of constant struggle. You’ve heard of the thousand-mile stare? This is like a ten thousand-mile stare.
Finally, he has enough. He takes the handcuff used initially to chain him to Mu-Mu and uses them as brass knuckles and beats the cops into a coma. It’s a long take of him whaling on them until his hands are soaked in blood. It’s like he’s finally had enough of everything. Sweetback and Mu-Mu may be on the same side of this struggle, but, one, he wants nothing to do with Mu-Mu, and, two, the fuzz is breathing down hard – particularly at the whorehouse he hangs out at.
With the cops gone, Sweetback goes to the whorehouse and asks his friend Beetle to help him. We watch Beetle take a shit. Beetle refuses to help Sweetback because he’s mostly got a good thing going on, but helping a fugitive who beat the shit out of two cops would probably fuck all that up.
A couple beat cops find Sweetback and ask him about the two detectives. They give Sweetback the benefit of the doubt, but Sweetback just stares at them. They tell him cops are still alive, and he should help them because they are all friends. They discover that Sweetback is the very person they are looking for and they get instruction to work him over before bringing him in. He’s able to escape these officers thanks to the help of some neighborhood folks…
Who set fire to the cops’ car. That’s… That’s impressive! I mean, what do you think? Do they just have a bucket of flammable shit that they keep around just in case the fuzz comes down to Crenshaw or South Central and start beating unsuspecting and innocent folks?
Never mind. That was a dumb question. Good on them.
So Sweetback hits up a friend’s place and asks her to unlock his cuffs. But before she’s willing to do that, she’s gotta take payment – the form of a python biting onto a softball…
I mean, damn… The Van Peebles are all about lying on chicks and giving them pleasure in this movie.
Sadly, though, the cops are especially pissy now at Sweetback. They try to force his location out of Beetle, who doesn’t give them anything to work with even after they fire their guns next to his head to try to make him deaf. I’m beginning to think these cops are pricks. Just kidding… They pretty much came into this movie real prickish from the get go.
Sweetback then goes to a church but is refused refuge for fear that the cops would eventually discover a drug rehab place on the roof and shut the whole place down. Eventually, Sweetback and Mu-Mu meet back up and are eventually dumped off outside South Central where they plan to make their way to Mexico, but the guys who dropped them off are also kind enough to give the advice to buy themselves a last meal because they are dead men.
They run afoul of a biker gang. Sweetback is put up against their leader for a duel. They ask Sweetback what he wants to duel with and with each offer, the leader seems to be pretty fucking awesome at everything. Turns out that the biker he’s put up against is a fairly pretty redhead. The greatest thing in all the world then happens as Sweetback names his weapon…
Guys… Sweet Sweetback battles a biker chick through the power of his ridiculously powerful cock. And if you think this is filmed in a way that is pretty straightforward with some rockin’ slap bass, you can fuck off with that. This shit is filmed in the most interesting, near Kubrick-style surrealism with various angles, repeated shots and audio, and freeze frames. If you ever wondered what it would be like if Stanley Kubrick filmed hardcore porn, it’s right here. Melvin Van Peebles did it. He fuckin’ did it.
Before being able to safely get away, Sweetback and Mu-Mu play some pool and await a friend who will help, but are forced to defend themselves when two cops show up. Mu-Mu gets shot, but is still alive. Sweetback ultimately kills both cops. A black biker, played by John Amos, has been sent to help Sweetback get away. However, Sweetback tells the biker to take Mu-Mu because “he’s our future” referring to the fight the Black Panthers are putting up to enforce change.
After the police commissioner fucks up real bad and calls Sweetback and Mu-Mu a racial slur, he decides to ask two black detectives to go after him and make good for relations. Some cops, with pressure mounting, break into a hotel room where they find a black guy and a white woman fucking. They hold her and beat the fuck out of the guy who don’t seem to care that they don’t have the right guy. As the chase continues, eventually, the cops believe they got the right guy. Mu-Mu is killed, and when they ask Beetle, who is both now wheelchair bound and deaf from the torture he received, to identify the body, he only sees that it’s the biker who came to get Sweetback.
Police presence in the slums of LA is only mounting and just about every black person in the area is asked if they’ve ever seen Sweetback. He’s injured but is able to escape in a close call and a fall that allows him to sneak away from the cop. Eventually, Sweetback finds a hippie to trade clothes with and heads through the desert on the way to Tijuana. At one point, when the chase is really heating up, the police actually finds him, but when the search party thinks they just caught a couple in the bushes fucking, they do nothing more.
But as Sweetback gets ever closer to the border, he is actually spotted. In what seems to be the inevitable conclusion that Sweetback will fail to cross the border and die a martyr, he is actually successfully able to kill the search dogs chasing him and make it across the border safely. The movie ends with a warning (or promise?) to watch out because:
This is the quintessential blaxploitation movie. It’s not quite like a lot of others I’ve covered here or have been made shortly after this that are also considered hallmarks of the genre. This was not just the first, not just the one that most would say visually and plot-wise has the most to say, but it’s made by a black director. Most of the mainstream blaxploitation flicks of the 70s were made by white directors and written by white writers. Much of the importance of the movie is squarely on Melvin Van Peebles.
Additionally, in almost every movie before this, the black lead would have been gunned down – likely violently. Justice would have come for him. And that absolutely brings up one of the more important questions of this movie – who should we root for?
Well, that’s not as (ahem) black and white, now is it? (See what I did there? You like that? Pretty clever, huh?)
Did Sweetback commit a crime? Yes. He did. He put two cops into a coma by brutally beating them. However, why was he with the cops to snap like that in the first place? Because the cops needed to calm the public’s fears over a murder by parading a black man into the police department and make it look like they are following leads. Additionally, they tortured an innocent person and disabled him for life over being associated with Sweetback, and they likely didn’t have to kill Mu-Mu or the biker, but they did anyway. It’s a sticky situation, but it helps tell the bigger point.
That point was that life in the 60s and early 70s was none too pleasant for a black person. If you were a black person in a black neighborhood, you likely were policed by whites who were much better off than you. They would have been educated, likely had a multitude of opportunities and would have been “upwardly mobile”. They wouldn’t likely have a great deal of care about your well being. Sure, some might call you “friend”, but you would likely be left paying a really hefty toll for that friendship (think about why the cops went to Beetle in the first place, and why they felt he’d gladly cooperate).
Most of the final act of the movie as the search intensified became almost documentary in style. Asking if people knew or had seen Sweetback pretty much looked like Melvin approached people on the street and asked them to say what he wrote for them. And, surprise, most of these people looked to be in pretty bad shape. A lot of them were sickly looking or missing teeth. They were mostly older and had lived a real hard life with practically nothing. These that were younger were likely shiftless from a system that had no intention to help. It’s very real and very unpleasant when you give it a moment’s thought.
However, it is not a depressing movie to watch. It doesn’t pull punches with anything, but it didn’t make me feel ugly for watching it. It is a fascinating movie that flows freely from character study to social study to stream of consciousness and back through again. This is a very expertly crafted movie and not surprising at all that it influenced several other filmmakers and has found its place in history on a very high level.
Next month we have a theme! We move from the blaxploitation of Sweet Sweetback to a different type of exploitation – Naziploitation. And what better set of movies to watch that touch upon this sub-genre than the Ilsa series? That’s right, next week we begin Ilsa, She-Wolf of SSeptember Month! Come by and check it out. I’m sure Dyanne Thorne will be happy to whip you into shape.