Directed by Mario Van Peebles. USA. 2004.

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Jamie Garwood attends the launch of Blackworld in London and the special preview screening of Baadasssss!  

Blackworld, the new bfi initiative, had its live launch on Thursday 2nd June 2005 in five locations simultaneously showed the special preview screening of Mario Van Peebles’ docu-drama in the Odeon West End, Leicester Square.

Before the film began we were treated to a walk-on by all the famous faces whose work is being shown as a part of Blackworld by the National Film Theatre and its partners.  Along with Mario Van Peebles himself and his father Melvin, we had the forefather of African cinema, Ousame Sembeme, who is enjoying a career retrospective at the NFT throughout the June; Horace Ove the first British black director to direct a feature length film; Kyra Miller, the very promising Jamaican whose short work is going a nationwide tour later this year and Amma Assand, patron of Blackworld, who directed A Way of Life.

After that the lights went down and the fun started, what follows is a first seen review of Baadasssss! .

‘Melvin showed that you have to follow your dreams.  
But to follow your dreams, you have to wake up.’ - Bill Cosby

Baadasssss! tells the story about the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which Mario’s father, Melvin, directed in 1971 and is widely considered as the birthplace of blaxploitation cinema in America.  But instead of looking at the historical aspect of the picture Mario looks at how the film changed his father, because of a lot of the film is shot from Mario’s point of view as it was then.  Yes, Sweetback was made as a reaction to the negative imagery of black people in Hollywood cinema and did gain its X rating based on its in the face pornography and violence, but it gained its independent success through its honesty of institutionalised racism in society in general. And the film is given extra resonance by Mario playing his father, a role that allows Mario to get his teeth into.
 The film is a visual treat embracing different visual styles and as a making of a making of a film, it is able to uphold a strong sense of realism due to these styles being used.  Its shows how frenetic and changing the making of a film can be - putting it third behind death and moving home as life’s stress tests - and how insular the writing process is, you see Mario/Melvin in his bedroom (we never see the wall he is looking at until he looks at the mirror) bouncing up and down full of ideas putting the film to paper to the wall, slowly the mise-en-scene changes (the bed doesn’t get made) and the light gets slowly darker.

This is also a film aware of the moment in which Sweetback was made; from the opening credits we see Mario and Melvin on a motorbike a la Captain America and George in Easy Rider to a young Mario looking at ants like the children do at the beginning of The Wild Bunch. The problems about making the film and the lack of hope for the picture are dealt with in passing conversation but clever dialogue (‘No man has a problem identifying with John Wayne, because they look like John Wayne. They might have a problem identifying with Sweetback because half the country doesn’t look like him’.   

It is shot with a pace and rhythm and a genuine honesty because of the emotional attachment Mario has to the work.  Mario as director does not hide the rough edges of the production including motions of camerawork and editing of the moment; whip pans, elliptical dissolves and Mario does not hide the rough edges in his performance, letting it all hang out in a performance that could have so easily slipped into nostalgic sentimentality but the edge and honesty makes it all the better. 

There is one narrative edifice used which I feel falls on death ears is when Mario/Melvin talks to his alter-ego Sweetback, when Mario does the tortured artist and family man on his own without requiring the psychological profile, we can see the results the film is having on his personal health and emotional stability.

At the end, the film does tend like Mario/Melvin to linger at the Grand Palace in Detroit, as if waiting for the cultural importance of his film to hit him. We forget that the explosion of the film did just burst on the scene.  There is a great moment in this sequence when the man who has to put the title on the marquee has to keep checking the poster of the film to see how many s’s it has.

The title compliments the film full of creative imagery and energy in its sharp, visceral editing and great performances full of warmth and honesty.  You know how the story goes but it is good to see again in a baadasssss way.

This film is deserving of opening Blackworld, it encompasses the past of popular black film and also looks towards the future of black American cinema and a sustained directorial career for Mario Van Peebles, who here is the star and also serves as a fitting tribute to the career of Melvin Van Peebles.  

Should this be the standard Blackworld has set itself, the rest of the season should be an amazing experience for all and not in the least bad.

Jamie Garwood
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