July 19, 2004

But You Won't Bleed Me

Following a day of sweaty hipsters, soft serve ice cream and sunscreen residue at the Siren fest on Coney Island (CC <3 Ben Gibbard!), Cinecultist exited the Q train at 14th Street to do the Union Square to Eee Vee movie lap in search of something to watch. At the 14th Street Loews theater the Anchorman screening for 10:10 pm was sold out and I, Robot only barely looks HBO-worthy. Down 4th Avenue we walked, pausing briefly for a fortifying slice at Pie then over 12th Street to 3rd Avenue to peruse the Loews Village VII options. Fahrenheit 9/11 we'd seen, Cinderella Story (see Avowed Moratorium), De-Lovely looks shudder inducing. Crossing 11th Street and heading back up 2nd Avenue we made a little prayer to the Movie Gods. "C'mon something decent to see at 10:30-ish." Bingo! Badassss at 10:20 pm at the CC Village East, we have a winner.

Cinecultist wishes we had seen this movie sooner, just so that we could have had more time to urge you to go and see it before it slips away from theaters. Directed by and starring filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, Badassss is a historiographic film, telling the story of the making of his father's seminal '70s blaxsploitation Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song. After completing Watermelon Man and receiving a tempting 3 picture deal from Columbia, Melvin Van Peebles wanted to make a movie about the black community, to represent the real struggles of the black man on the silver screen and to capture the national unease of the late '60s. But without the backing of a studio for his picture, he had to literally borrow, beg and steal to get his movie made with independent funding. No action was too sneaky and roundabout for Melvin in his unrelenting quest to get this picture made. He pretended to the unions it was a porn, so he could make it with an interracial crew. He enlisted an actress to do a nude scene by inviting her on a date to the set. He even almost shaved his son's beloved Afro to make it look like ring worm because Mario was playing the young Sweetback.

What makes Badassss such thrilling filmmaking and more than just a movie about moviemaking is the cross-over of people who were there and those retelling the tale. The script is adapted from Melvin's memoirs about the movie's creation, but the film shows how much a part of the film Mario was at every step and his own recollections of events must have heavily influenced his directing and performance as his father. In fact, it's surprising how sympathetic Melvin is, despite his depiction in the film as completely single-minded and kind of an asshole. Badassss shows a film who's filmmaker felt it politically and socially imperative that it be made, and his passion elevates the fictional drama to a level where you're literally on the edge of your seat to see if he can pull it off. Over the credits, Mario alternates footage of the actors and the real people they portray, and when we finally get to see a shot of the real Melvin with his beard now gray but still chomping away on his iconic cigar, you want to cheer. Here's a movie maker who strove to make a difference with his films and to tell stories about his own life experience. As the soundtrack reprises the musicical theme of "you bled my Mama/ you bled my Papa/ but you won't bleed me" it sounds like a real rebel song. And there couldn't be a more loving tribute from an artist and a son indebted to his trailblazing.

Posted by karen at July 19, 2004 7:56 AM