Blaxploitation salvation: the directors’ children rescuing their fathers’ lost movies

·8 min read

Justine Henzell and Mario Van Peebles both know what it’s like to grow up on movie sets as the child of a groundbreaking director. Henzell was six in 1972 when her father, Perry, finished The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first full-length feature, starring the reggae legend Jimmy Cliff as a fugitive whose musical success coincides with his criminal notoriety. Van Peebles even starred in his father Melvin’s third film, the 1971 underground hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which is credited with inspiring the Blaxploitation genre.

As adults, each of them has now had a hand in rescuing and restoring great movies by their fathers that might otherwise have been lost or neglected: Henzell’s more ruminative second feature No Place Like Home, which was lost for more than 20 years, and Van Peebles’s stylish, Nouvelle Vague-tinged 1967 debut The Story of a Three-Day Pass, overlooked at the time and later overshadowed by the more incendiary Sweetback. Henzell laughs when I remark on her father’s momentum in getting started on his second feature so quickly after the first. “He may have had momentum but he had no money,” says the 55-year-old, the ocean lapping at the Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, shoreline behind her. “The film was shot in fits and starts as the cash came in. He was completely broke after The Harder They Come. He’d been carrying those cans around the world himself trying to sell it. The film still hadn’t repaid its investors and here he was making something even more experimental.”

For scenes in which the producer Susan (played by Susan O’Meara) oversees the shooting of a glossy shampoo commercial on the beach, Henzell hired an entire separate US unit to do exactly that: to make the advertisement for real in 35mm while his own crew filmed them doing so. His daughter still sounds astonished at his audacity. “It was actual cinéma vérité,” she says. Expensive it may have been, but no one could say it didn’t pay off visually. For a movie in which different facades are stripped away – from Susan’s emotional timidity to the picture-postcard prettiness of Jamaica, which conceals the country’s unstable future – it makes sense to show the illusion at its most brazenly seductive.

The film has so much in its favour, not least the rich, natural performances by a cast that includes the young Grace Jones, PJ Soles (later of Carrie and Halloween) and the Rastafarian fisher-poet Countryman. But the combination of erratic funding and an improvisatory, open-ended shoot meant that production was constantly shutting down. It wasn’t until 1981 that Henzell secured the funds to complete the final scenes; when he went to retrieve the negative of what he had already shot from the film company vaults in New York, it was gone.

“The part the film played in his life was one of deep disappointment and tragedy,” Henzell recalls. “It was something he had to let go of. He said, ‘If I don’t forget about this film, it’s gonna drive me crazy.’” His grief was so great that he never directed again. “It’s such a huge loss that we don’t have the benefit of what else he would have done.”

I held my breath as we opened the cans. When we didn’t smell vinegar – the celluloid hadn't degraded – it was emotional

At least we now have No Place Like Home, pieced together at last and restored in a vivid, shimmering print, thanks to Henzell and an enterprising projectionist, David Garonzik, whose enthusiasm for The Harder They Come made him determined to find the follow-up. It materialised when hundreds of unclaimed boxes were discovered during an inventory at Universal in 2004. Without telling her father, Henzell flew to the US to inspect them. “I held my breath as we opened the cans,” she says. “And when we didn’t smell vinegar – which would have told us that the celluloid had degraded – it was a very emotional moment.”

How did her father react to the news? “He was a little incredulous. He had put it out of his mind and was nervous about letting it all back in because it had been such a source of pain.”

He had also received a cancer diagnosis four years earlier. He died in 2006, but only after shooting new material for the restored version, working on an acclaimed London stage adaptation of The Harder They Come and witnessing the premiere at the Toronto film festival of a work-in-progress restoration of No Place Like Home. “He hung around long enough to see those things happen,” Henzell tells me. “I think he felt: ‘OK. I can go now.’”

Van Peebles Sr, now 88, is in poor health, so it is Mario, an actor-writer-director like his father, who speaks to me from New York. “My dad says he’s got CRS,” smiles the 64-year-old. “That’s ‘Can’t Remember Shit.’ But he came to the premiere of The Story of a Three-Day Pass, and he really dug it – he thought it looked great.”

The film follows Turner (Harry Baird), a young African American soldier stationed in France, who falls for a white Parisian, Miriam (Nicole Berger), during his long weekend of leisure prior to taking up a promotion. It was made in 1967 only after Van Peebles had been stonewalled by Hollywood. “The studios told him they didn’t need elevator operators,” his son says. “When he replied that he wanted to make films, he was told: ‘Well, we don’t need no elevator operators who think they’re directors.’ He knew they were leaving money on the table because they weren’t making films that black folks wanted to see themselves in.”

Van Peebles Sr responded by moving the family to Paris. “I slept in a bathtub,” his son says. “My sister slept in the closet.” His father learned the language, wrote La Permission, a novel entirely in French, then raised the money to turn it into his feature debut. At the time, the anxious Turner looked out of step with images of blackness in cinema.

“Sidney Poitier was so talented, educated and bright,” Van Peebles says, “but while he was making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, my father was in France shooting this interracial love story where the characters are regular, flawed and fucked-up. Turner is a total nerd! It’s almost a coming-of-age film. My father wasn’t interested in making us ‘other’. He was making us ‘you’.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes showing Turner haunted by a self-doubting alter ego, who berates him in the mirror. It is a bold visual technique that Van Peebles Jr borrowed when he played the lead role in Baadasssss!, his own 2003 film about the making of his father’s seminal work. In the original 1971 movie, he had appeared as the adolescent version of the main character, Sweetback. In fact, it was his participation in a (simulated) sex scene at the age of 13 that still prevents a complete version of the film being shown in the UK, where the BBFC insisted on its removal. “I’ll ask my father if he’ll reshoot it with me now,” he says.

Like father … Melvin and Mario Van Peebles.
‘He dug it’: Melvin and Mario Van Peebles Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

One of the most surprising qualities shared by The Story of a Three-Day Pass and No Place Like Home is the eagerness of these male directors to inhabit the female perspective. When Turner and Miriam first have sex, the film cuts from the man’s deluded self-image (“This Bridgerton idea of himself in a flowing white shirt,” as Van Peebles puts it) to the woman’s fantasy. It feels just as radical in No Place Like Home to see the male lead, a Jamaican fixer played by Carl Bradshaw, being savoured in shots taken from Susan’s point-of-view.

“I feel as if The Harder They Come has a lot of masculine energy,” says Henzell, “whereas No Place Like Home is a very feminine film. It’s got much more of a female gaze. My dad did a really good job of getting inside Susan’s head. When Carl and Susan have sex, it’s not solely erotic – we’re so invested in her that it’s more about joy.”

She speaks with pride today about being a custodian of her father’s legacy. “It is an honour to be able to continue the work he started more than 50 years ago,” she says. If she has a concern, it is that his versatility might work against the newer film. “It frightens me that people will go to No Place Like Home thinking they’re going to see The Harder They Come 2. They are different sorts of love letters to Jamaica. That’s why it was so important to him to make No Place Like Home. He wanted to show his range.” Mission accomplished.

  • No Place Like Home and The Story of a Three-Day Pass are screening in the Cinema Rediscovered festival at the Watershed Cinema, Bristol, 28 July-1 August and around the country on Cinema Rediscovered on Tour from August-October. The Harder They Come will stream on Mubi from 2 August.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting