• Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song



    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: May 29th, 2018.
    Director: Melvin Van Peebles
    Cast: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales, Mario Van Peebles, John Dullaghan, Wesley Gale, Niva Ruschell, John Amos, Lavelle Roby
    Year: 1971
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    The Movie:

    In 1971, a young filmmaker named Melvin Van Peebles would effectively kick start the 'blaxploitation' genre with his notorious full-length feature film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. This was a low budget picture (finished with money borrowed from none other than Bill Cosby), which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in made completely outside of the established Hollywood system.

    A reflection of the society that spawned it, Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song is the story of a black man named Sweetback (played by Melvin Van Peebles). We learn in the opening scene how he got his name when, as a boy, he pleasures a prostitute in the brothel that he cleans (it’s a shockingly graphic scene considering that it cases then child actor Mario Van Peebles as young Sweetback!). He works as a sex performer who earns money putting on X-rated shows for wealthier patrons who like to watch. Soon after we see him at work, Sweetback is forced to help the police keep up appearances from a political perspective and is made to accompany the cops back to the police station as a suspect in the recent murder of a black man. This is more for political reasons than anything else, and the man running the brothel where Sweetback is employed lets him go assuming he’ll be back soon.

    Things take a dark turn when Sweetback witnesses the cops beating up and arresting a different wrongfully accused black man without any provocation. Sweetback is then forced to go on the run when be brutalizes the cops for their own crimes. Soon enough, he's off to Mexico to escape from 'the man' and along the way encounters a strange cast of characters. Some of them help him, some of them hate him, and some of them - the ladies specifically - love him… in the Biblical sense, at least.

    While the plot might not be anything to write home about, the film has atmosphere and energy to spare. Van Peebles is so intensely angry in his role, a mostly silent performance, that you can’t help but find him engaging. His anger is clearly seething just below the surface, a pot ready to boil over – and Van Peebles is superbly watchable in this part. While the film may suffer from a lot of the standard low budget pitfalls, it's easy to overlook them here. Sweetback is a man of few words, he'd rather let his actions speak for him and Van Peebles is convincing as the silent antihero.

    The soundtrack, a totally insane mix of funk (courtesy of Earth, Wind and Fire) mixed with gothic sounding chanting monks, serves to effectively set the mood for the film and indeed plays a large part in making its atmosphere work. Towards the end of the film, it almost takes on a life of its own and becomes a character itself. It’s here that the music seems to reinvigorate Sweetback when he's almost down for the count, chased through the brush by armed men and dogs.

    Not only important as a historical piece because of its political stance, but also because of its record
    breaking box office performance, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song has had an influence still felt in films today. Van Peebles inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers and paved the way for black actors, directors, producers, etc., that hadn't been seen in the years before. At the same time, he pays tribute to work that clearly influenced him, the most obvious being the French New Wave of the sixties. We see this in the film’s use of color, in its editing tactics and in its use of split-screen and other effects.

    The film proudly touts its anti-establishment roots with the tagline 'rated X by an all white jury' and with it's opening text piece stating 'this film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters out there who had enough of The Man.' The opening credits also state that the picture was made by ‘The Black Community.’ Van Peebles was clearly making a point of having black voices heard with this picture – heard loud and heard clear.

    Pretty much every black picture made since – exploitation or otherwise - owes a debt to this film for proving what could be done outside the system and doing it well. It was really the one of the first to show a black man victorious over his white antagonists and also the first to capture the feel and sound of a frustrated subculture that hadn't really been given a chance to show its merit. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song put black cinema on the map and while it's widely considered a 'blaxploitation' film, it should also be considered a groundbreaking piece of movie history.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Vinegar Syndrome brings Sweetback to Blu-ray in a transfer that is “Newly scanned and restored in 4k from 35mm original camera negative” but a disclaimer before the presentation starts offers more details – the film was shot on a mix of 35mm and 16mm stock. The 16mm stock was then blown up to 35mm and discarded, so it’s the blow-up material rather than the original 16mm material that was used. Additionally, roughly two to three minutes of footage was taken from an inferior source. You’ll know it when you see it, because it stands out against what is otherwise an excellent transfer. Some print damage inherent in the materials clearly couldn’t be eliminated – which is fair enough – but this is a huge upgrade over the previous Xenon DVD release. It’s properly framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and the AVC encoded 1080p transfer offers excellent detail, depth and texture. Colors are very nicely handled here and black levels are strong. The 50GB disc gives the picture plenty of breathing room and so there are no noticeable compression artifacts, while the image is free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement problems. This is a naturally grainy, film-like presentation – just as it should be!

    The DTS-HD Mono track is pretty solid considering the film’s roots. Dialogue is clean and clear and that Earth, Wind And Fire soundtrack sounds really nice (too bad it couldn’t have been included as an extra). Some bits sound a tad flat and you might notice some hiss here and there, but this is all minor stuff and again, we get a substantial upgrade over what has been available in the past. Optional subtitles are available in English only.

    Extras begin with an ‘historical commentary track’ featuring with Sergio Mims (who was the assistant director on Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary) that, above all else, stresses the importance of context when evaluating the merits of the film. Mims talks about the opening scene, of course, as well as other elements of the film that haven’t necessarily aged perfectly but above all he stresses just how important this picture was and the influence that it has had over the years. He makes the case for the film’s politics and explains why the picture remains an influential and important one. He notes some of Van Peeble’s directorial quirks, talks about the performances and also the importance of the soundtrack. It’s an interesting chat that is worth checking out.

    From there, we get “Career interview with Melvin Van Peebles,” courtesy of Olumide Productions which clocks in at twenty-three minutes in length. Here the director talks about coming back to America after spending time in Europe. He then discusses some of his earlier projects, differences between working in America and in France, difficulties in getting some of his work made, the one time that he used an agent in his career, difficulties for black workers to get employment with bigger studios like Columbia, casting people that weren’t professional actors in certain roles, putting a crew together on his own to get his work done, financing issues, Bill Cosby’s role in helping Sweetback get done and quite a bit more.

    “One Baadasssss Woman!” is a thirty-two minute interview with Niva Ruschell who speaks about how her grandfather got her interested in movies and how she felt that she had a calling to answer on her way to becoming an actress. From there she talks about the influence of family, how she wound up getting into the film business in West Hollywood, getting picked to be an extra in a feature, working in publicity for Warner Brothers, how she met Van Peebles after meeting the second A.D. on Watermelon Man and then get a SAG card and how her acting career did start to take off after that. She then talks about having to do nudity in a film, working no Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Melvin’s ‘stern’ directing style, and then having to shoot the film’s still controversial opening scene with Mario Van Peebles. She then talks about the reception to the film, the importance of timing in its release, and how her name is misspelled in the film’s ending credits. From there, she spends a bit of time talking about what she did after this feature, discussing her work on Tongue which she produced. She talks about casting the picture, the significance of the title and where the idea came from, how the film got bankrolled and distributed by an executive at Universal Studios, working with Al Poe and Brigitte Maier on the film and quite a bit more. Great stuff, she’s got a lot of really interesting stories to tell!

    Also included on the disc is a thirty-six minute Q&A from the 2013 Black Panther Film Festival at the Maysles Center in Harlem. Here Van Peebles – who is not short on attitude! - fields questions about the film about various topics including how the Black Panther party supported the film when only two theaters in the country would show the film, the challenges that arose when trying to get the movie out there back in the early seventies, his three picture deal with Columbia and what happened with that and other aspects of his career. It’s an interesting talk and Melvin is clearly pretty fired up in spots which makes it even more enjoyable than it would be where he less animated than he is.

    Carried over from the old Xenon Entertainment DVD is The Real Deal... What It Is, a great 'making of' documentary featuring Melvin Van Peebles revisiting a lot of the old locations where the film was shot and explaining a lot of the difficulties he encountered while trying to get the film made on his own terms. He refers to 'trying to figure out how to get The Man's foot out of my ass' as he explains the problems he encountered making the film outside of the system. He discusses his political views and the thinking behind the movie and its characteristics in quite a bit of detail. While he tends to mumble a bit, he seems to remember things pretty clearly and is keen to talk about the movie. It's an interesting documentary, even if the audio is a bit muffled, and at roughly twenty-two-minutes in length it provides some nice insight into the film from the mind behind it.

    The disc also includes a trailer for the feature (taken from a video source), menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie with the same extras contiannig a standard definition down-convert of the same transfer. The packaging is also worth mentioning, as Vinegar Syndrome has included a color insert booklet containing an interesting essay on the film by Travis Crawford as well as some nice reversible cover sleeve art.

    The Final Word:

    Everyone needs to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, if only to better where the black cinema movement of the 1970's began. It's a rough, crude and violent film but so too is it a picture with a lot of character and even more energy, filled a with raw enthusiasm all too rare in modern films. Vinegar Syndrome has rolled out the red carpet for the film, presenting it in a great presentation and loaded with extras.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!