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Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering filmmaker behind the 1970s films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, has died. He was 89.

Van Peebles, the father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan. His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films announced his death in a statement.

melvin van peebles

“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year.”

Considered by many to be the godfather of modern Black cinema, Van Peebles was an influential link to a younger generation of African-American filmmakers that includes Spike Lee and John Singleton. The Chicago native also was a novelist, theater impresario, songwriter, musician and painter.

Van Peebles was living in Paris when the first feature he wrote and directed, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, attracted attention and put him on the radar at Columbia Pictures. The studio selected him to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a racial satire that starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a bigoted white insurance salesman who goes to the bathroom in his suburban home in the middle of the night and discovers he’s Black. Very few African-Americans were directing in Hollywood at the time.

On the strength of that movie’s success, Columbia offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal but wanted no part of his next project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Helped by a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, he wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the renegade film while starring as its anti-hero, a ladies man with superhero lovemaking abilities who battles the corrupt white establishment in Los Angeles.

Van Peebles made Sweetback in 19 days for a reported $500,000. It opened in only two venues, in Atlanta and Detroit, but fueled by strong word-of-mouth from working-class African-Americans and a soundtrack of music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire, the picture raked in more than $10 million, making it the highest-grossing independent film in history at the time. (The opening credits note that the star of the film is “The Black Community.”)

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