Before Spike Lee was even born, a onetime San Francisco cable-car brakeman turned filmmaker named Melvin Van Peebles started breaking fresh ground in the way in which African-Americans were depicted on the screen.
Over the past three decades Van Peebles, who has been a novelist, playwright, composer and Wall Street whiz, has made only a handful of films--his next will deal with the Black Panthers--but his status is secure as a trailblazer and inspiration to a younger generation of black filmmakers, which includes his own son Mario.
A number of those filmmakers, including Matty Rich and John Singleton, will be on hand at the American Cinematheque's "A Weekend With Melvin Van Peebles," beginning today at the Directors Guild. The event will celebrate the man, the artist and his movies.
Without a doubt, the key Van Peebles film is his corrosive 1971 tour de force, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (screening Saturday at 7 p.m.). So abstract is "Sweet Sweetback" that all you can say for sure of the plot is that it's about a pimp (Van Peebles) on the lam after being involved in the killing of a brutal cop. As the picture progresses, you worry less and less about keeping track of the story line (an impossible task anyway) because its incoherence, intended or otherwise, becomes so expressive of Sweetback's predicament and induces identification with him.
For the first time Van Peebles emerges with an emphatic style, one that captures the restless tempo of Sweetback's existence in a jagged flood of vivid, often surreal images. In a series of stark, earthy vignettes, Van Peebles evokes the vitality, humor, pain, despair and omnipresent fear that is life for so many African-Americans. By the end of the film Sweetback has emerged as a symbol of defiance of mythical proportions. Playing with "Sweet Sweetback" is the 10-minute "Three Pick-Up Men for Herrick" (1958), a psychological portrait of a group of men hoping to be picked for day-labor jobs; the men who get chosen display pride rather than desperation.
In order to break into features, Van Peebles went to France, where in 1967 he made the delightful "Story of a Three-Day Pass" (screening tonight at 7:30), which he wrote and directed from his own novel about a handsome, likable African-American soldier (West Indian actor Harry Baird) who finds romance with a lovely French girl (Nicole Berger). Van Peebles tells their story with a simplicity, freshness and spontaneity of the early New Wave films. Rarely does the camera capture so intensely the sense of exhilaration that accompanies liberation as Baird's arrival in Paris.
Just as Baird is sustained by his self-mockery, this tender and witty film is saved from sentimentality by its satirical edge. Indeed, because Van Peebles is so good-natured and gentle, the implications of Baird's moments of ecstatic happiness and increasing sense of worth, as a black man who happens to be involved with a white woman, are all the more stinging. Playing with "The Story of a Three-Day Pass" is Van Peebles' first film, the experimental, five-minute "SunLight" (1958), which expresses with succinctness and pain the filmmaker's enduring concerns with the poverty and injustice that so many black people suffer.
In between his first and third feature Van Peebles came to Hollywood to direct--but unfortunately not to write--the crude and inept 1970 satire "Watermelon Man" (tonight at 9:30); not even the formidable talent of the late Godfrey Cambridge as a bigot who wakes up one morning to discover that he's turned black could save the show.
The real curiosity of the weekend is the 1972 "Don't Play Us Cheap" (Saturday at 9 p.m.), an apparently never-released film of Van Peebles' stage musical. Unabashedly a filmed play, it's a lively, good-natured account of a Saturday night party in Harlem (given by a hearty and wise Esther Rolle) that's crashed by a pair of agents of the devil (Avon Long, Joseph Keyes) who find themselves tempted to turn human amid so much warm hospitality. On a symbolic level, the film celebrates the resilience and rectitude of ordinary people in the face of evil, and in this theme Van Peebles anticipates Charles Burnett's "To Sleep With Anger" by nearly 20 years.
Completing the series are two highly regarded films Van Peebles wrote--but did not direct--for television: the 1976 "Just an Old Sweet Song" (screening Saturday following "Don't Play Us Cheap") and the 1981 "Sophisticated Gents" (screening Sunday at 4 p.m.). The weekend concludes Sunday at 8 p.m. with Van Peebles' latest film, the 1989 "Identity Crisis," in which his son Mario plays a rap singer who assumes the body of a middle-aged gay fashion designer.
Information: (213) 466-FILM.