Melvin Van Peebles, icon of Black cinema behind 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,' dies at 89

·5 min read

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “Blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.

His family said in a statement Wednesday that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.

"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 from the Criterion Collection read.

His son, 64, praised his late father's contributions to the cinematic industry.

“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality," he said. "It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on Aug. 21, 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the Air Force, serving as a navigator for three years.

Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.

But he was best known for writing, directing and starring in 1971's "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," a landmark film that will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week in his honor. The low-budget, art-house film was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

In 2014, Van Peebles spoke to Asbury Park Press, part of the USA TODAY network, about writing the soundtrack for the movie — which he described as a form of "storytelling."

Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.
Melvin Van Peebles, a Broadway playwright, musician and movie director whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, has died at age 89. His family said in a statement that Van Peebles died Tuesday night, Sept. 21, 2021, at his home.

"Before me, music soundtracks were sort of afterthoughts," Van Peebles said at the time. "See, I didn't have money, so I said hmm, because only two theaters in the United States would show Sweetback, I used my music to publicize the film, and it was such a success that everybody copied it."

Van Peebles also went on to direct 1970's "Watermelon Man" and got involved in Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap.” He later wrote the movie “Greased Lightning” starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black race car driver.

Outside of directing, Van Peebles made his television acting debut in the miniseries "The Sophisticated Gents" in 1981. His other movie and TV credits include the 1997 TV series "The Shining," 1997's Showtime film "Riot," 1993's "Posse" and 2013's "Peeples" starring Kerry Washington and Craig Robinson.

Mario Van Peebles, left,  Melvin Van Peebles and Cicely Tyson in the 1997 Showtime film "Riot."
Mario Van Peebles, left, Melvin Van Peebles and Cicely Tyson in the 1997 Showtime film "Riot."

Van Peebles collaborated with his son Mario in the 1989 film "Identity Crisis," with Melvin directing and Mario starring as Chilly D, a struggling rapper possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer. Van Peebles also starred alongside his son in the Mario-directed Black panther drama, "Panther" (1995) as well as "Love Kills" (1998) and "Redemption Road" (2010).

Van Peebles’ death came days before the New York Film Festival is to celebrate him with the 50th anniversary of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Next week, the Criterion Collection is to release the box set “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films.” A revival of his play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” is also planned to hit Broadway next year, with his son serving as creative producer.

After hearing the news of Van Peeble's death, celebrities shared their condolences and remembered the late director.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to share a quote from Van Peebles: "You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework you have. And don’t look outside. Look inside," adding he was an "iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer" who "has gone home."

"In Living Color" actor David Alan Grier wrote: "We’ve lost another lion, the true revolutionary, an artistic gangsta, cultural disrupter who forever changed the game Rest n Peace Melvin Van Peebles."

In a statement to USA TODAY, Bill Cosby called Peebles “very prolific and, at times, prophetic.”

“Melvin’s works as a composer, writer and performer need to be studied,” Cosby said. “The two original Thirty-Three and a Third albums, 'Brer Soul' and 'Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death' are amazing — written, composed and performed by the great Melvin Van Peebles. In his time, Melvin did not have the luxury of producers and directors of today. Thank you, Melvin!"

Contributing: Chris Jordan, Asbury Park Press and Jake Coyle, The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Melvin Van Peebles: 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' director dead

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