Writer-director Joe Angio allows his subject, writer-director-musician-provocateur Melvin Van Peebles, to run the show, but his documentary offers a solid overview of the pioneering African-American filmmaker's wide-ranging career. Born on Chicago's notorious South Side in 1932, Van Peebles grew up poor and angry in a segregated America where black people...read more
Writer-director Joe Angio allows his subject, writer-director-musician-provocateur Melvin Van Peebles, to run the show, but his documentary offers a solid overview of the pioneering African-American filmmaker's wide-ranging career. Born on Chicago's notorious South Side in 1932, Van Peebles grew up poor and angry in a segregated America where black people were expected to know their place. Van Peebles was having none of it: After a stint in the military, he moved to San Francisco, wrote a novel, The Big Heart, based on his experiences as a cable-car conductor, and was promptly fired because, he said, black folks weren't supposed to read books, let alone write them. An acquaintance suggested he try filmmaking, but the shorts he made got him nowhere in the industry. Following the lead of generations of black American writers, artists and intellectuals, he went to Europe and began studying astronomy in Holland. An invitation from legendary cineaste Henri Langlois took him to France, and while mastering the language, he began writing in it, producing novels like Un Ours pour le F.B.I., La Fete a Harlem and Un Americain en Enfer. He discovered that the French government would issue temporary director's cards to French writers who wanted to make films of their own works, and made THE STORY OF A THREE-DAY PASS (1968), from his novel La Permission, about a black American GI's ill-fated affair with a white French woman. Van Peebles returned to Hollywood and made the racially charged comedy WATERMELON MAN (1970) but bridled at studio politics and the endemic racism he encountered, so he scraped together financing for the raw, incendiary and hugely profitable SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAD ASSSSS SONG (1971), which became a cultural touchstone and launched the blaxploitation genre. Van Peebles went on to write musical theater pieces (Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Don't Play Us Cheap), become a Wall Street trader and act as general cultural gadfly, always remaining true to his confrontational, irascible, uncompromising self. Though the film verges on hagiography, Angio unearthed a treasure trove of fascinating clips, from the bored-looking writer-director leafing through his program at the 1971 Tony Awards, where Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death racked up seven nominations, to a much older Van Peebles doing a spoken-word rap on the cable-access show Midnight Blue with a naked girl gyrating behind him. Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words.
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