Though it’s often lumped in with the genre, or even credited with inventing it, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is by no means a blaxploitation film. On its face, the low-budget 1971 feature, rightly thought of as independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles’ magnum opus, shares some superficial traits with the ostensibly afro-centric action films which followed it, but even a cursory viewing of the film reveals it to be so much more. The surreal, sex and violence fueled odyssey of Sweetback, the films nearly silent (and, er, well-hung) protagonist, is no ordinary nudity filled shoot-‘em up, nor is it a product that’s simply made to be sold, instead it’s a deeply personal journey into black identity, and just as importantly, a call to action.
Don’t get it twisted, though. I absolutely love blaxploitation movies, but at the end of the day they’re still exploitation movies, which are more or less designed simply to put meat-in-the-seats, to seduce undiscriminating movie-goers into theatres with promises of gore, foul-language and more tits than you can shake a stick at. Like any exploitation sub-genre (drugsploitation, nunsploitation, women-in-prison movies), Blaxploitation put a new urban twist on a classic sleazy cinema formula, one that grew out of the turmoil that enveloped the film industry in the 1970s. It was a time when Hollywood had more or less lost touch with its market, having little or no idea how to connect with an increasingly young, increasingly diverse audience. At the same time that the industry was giving upstarts like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppala a shot, in hopes that they knew what these damn hippies wanted (leading to the New Hollywood revolution), they were also desperately trying to draw in black viewers, a segment of the market that they had been content to ignore until they fell on hard times.
Of course white studio execs had no fucking clue what black America looked for in a film, what kind of stories they wanted to see, what themes would resonate with them and, more pressing, separate them from their hard earned money. Then in 1971, the same year Van Peebles finally managed to release Sweetback, another African American director, Gordon Parks, had a major hit with the Hollywood financed Shaft, the real granddaddy of Blaxploitation cinema. Given the film’s success, the industry -- particularly the Grindhouse sector -- inevitably sought to replicate it, releasing any number of films featuring street smart, ultra-masculine heroes who take no prisoners and bed every lady they come across. Most of these were made on a shoestring budget, with little thought given to plot, but that doesn’t mean they’re not funky and fun, or that there’s not plenty of gems to discover, like The Mack, Dolemite, and just about anything starring Pam Grier, the baddest, blackest, most beautiful woman ever committed to celluloid.
Still, though these films created many more opportunities for black actors, turning some of them into bona-fide stars, behind the camera (and certainly on the business end), things were still dominated by whites, making Blaxploitation films an uneasy chapter in the saga of African Americans in film (is being represented worth it if all you’re being represented as are pimps, pushers and gun-toting vigilantes?). Sweet Sweetback, on the other hand, was not made to benefit the Hollywood money machine, but to spite it. Van Peebles had two features under his belt, but couldn’t secure funding for the film as he wanted to make it, so he financed it himself, writing the screenplay, playing the lead, and editing it on his own to keep costs low. Still struggling to put the money together, Van Peebles eventually made ends meet in some bizarre ways, including securing a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby (of all people) and by collecting Workers Compensation from the Director’s Guild of America because -- and I’m not kidding here -- he contracted Gonorrhea while shooting one of the film’s many sex scenes, and was thus “injured while on the job”.
It’s more than the film’s indie spirit that sets it apart from the rest of the Blaxploitation pack, though admittedly, If you’re familiar with the genre’s conventions, elements of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song will ring a few bells, particularly the super funky soundtrack (featuring music from then unknowns Earth, Wind & Fire) and the broad thrust of the plot, which follows a young hustler who comes to the rescue of a black activist by putting a pair of brutal cops in the hospital, sending him on a mad dash for freedom through the LA underground. There’s also no shortage of things that could be considered sensational or salacious, nudity, drug use, violence and the like, which have always been the bread and butter of exploitation film making, where a flashy poster is just as important as what ends up onscreen. However, just because Sweet Sweetback covers similar territory, it doesn’t mean that it’s a blaxploitation film, in the same way that Easy Rider is not a bikersploitation movie just because it has rebellious motorcyclists, or that Midnight Cowboy is a sexploitation film just because it’s about a gigolo.
The difference lies in that in Van Peebles film, the sex and violence are not mere audience bait, they’re heady themes that the directors skillfully, ambitiously dissects and turns inside out. The film did receive an X rating upon its release, which Van Peebles’ cleverly turned into a marketing tool, emblazoning posters with the slogan “Rated X by an All-White Jury!” The rating system was a bit different back then, with X being less associated with straight-up pornography than it is today (Midnight Cowboy, incidentally, got an X and it won Best Picture), but the classification only made it more of an uphill battle for Van Peebles to get his film seen. In any case, it’s not hard to see what they found objectionable; the film more or less opens with Melvin’s 13 year old son Mario, who went on to become a successful director in his own right, having sex (whether it’s simulated or not is a subject of some debate) with a much older woman. They probably didn’t take too kindly to the films overt black militancy either; the opening credits bear the legend “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”.
The violence of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is not empty action movie violence, the generic revenge/crusader storyline that so typified Blaxploitation. It’s political violence, the violence inherent in the system. Sure, he ends up offing a few pigs, but Sweetback is not a shoot-first-ask-questions-later tough guy. He’s just a hustler forced into a situation where he has to either act or stand idly by while the police beat the life out of a young activist for speaking out against the white establishment. Even after he saves the stranger’s life though, Sweetback doesn’t comprehend it as a revolutionary gesture of solidarity. “Where we goin’?” the frightened organizer asks. “Where you get this ‘we’ shit?” Sweetback replies (one of his longest lines of dialogue). At that point, he’s just a fugitive, motivated by self-preservation more than anything else, but through his arduous journey he starts to realize the bigger implications of his situation and the injustice of the system that put him in it, which gives him the strength to prevail against it. It’s not hard to wrap your head around why the Black Panthers officially endorsed the film.
While Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is ultimately set apart by its production, its politics and its innovative, expressive technique, it can be fully credited with having an influence on the genre that sprung up in its wake. Shaft may have had more of a hand in setting the template for what followed, but Van Peebles’ film also handily demonstrated the money making potential of courting the black movie-going public, being made for about $500,000 and generating more than $10 million. But again, it didn’t earn that sum for any fat cat exec (the New York Times called him “the first black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game”), nor was its success down to calculated pandering to a black audience, coming as it did from the very heart of the black struggle for liberation and self-determination. In the end, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song can’t be considered a blaxploitation film because neither the film nor the circumstances of its creation carry any trace of exploitation, just empowerment.