Original G’z: Melvin Van Peebles [Part 1]

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Melvin Van Peebles is a pioneer in the arts of film and music.
57 years since creating his first short film, the director of the cult classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is still hard at work on new material for screen and stage.

To this day, the 81-year-old is revered by fans of counter-culture film. But Van Peebles impact on popular culture goes much deeper than many realize. His movies ignited the “Blaxploitation” boom of the 1970’s, his music planted the seeds of Rap music, and his dignity and dedication showed generations of disenfranchised artists how to tell their truth without bowing to the powers that be.

Mechanical Dummy was honored to speak with the legendary Melvin Van Peebles for our latest #OriginalGeniuz profile. Below, MVP talks about his current projects, his enigmatic legacy and the long journey that made him one of the most important artists in the history of cinema.

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MD: Last time we saw you was in the “Peeples” movie with Kerry Washington and Craig Robinson. What else have you been working on?

MVP: Mainly, I’m working on the band, wid Laxative, which I’m very pleased with. And that’s on the music side, however also I did “Sweetback” as an opera. It played in Paris. That’s how I met the band, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. They asked me to do a show for them and I decided to do “Sweetback” as an opera using their orchestra… I’ve (also) got a new play I’m working on and a book that I’m finishing up. Somebody asked me to direct a movie for them as well, however I think I’ll wait on that situation ’til there’s some money.

MD: So wid Laxative is you and Burnt Sugar together. What does the name “wid Laxative” mean?

MVP: I call it wid Laxative, like, “wheres the laxatives?” Cause I don’t take no shit. You see, the style of music when I started is what first became spoken word. That was all some music that I started long before. It went fairly well because there’s a lot of albums out of it (including 1969’s “Brer Soul” and 1970’s “Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death.”) Then Gill Scott Heron and The Last Poets and several others started doing this type of music. It was me who started all that.

MD: Controlling the whole process and making original music with it and I feel like the way you approach art is different still compared to a lot of people who are making it right now?

MVP: Yeah because other people wanted to take what I was trying to do and I said, “Nuh uh uh.” I mean when I was going to make a deal with “Sweetback” to sign it, I was pretty desperate at the time and above the contract it said “blah blah blah blah, we’re taking this movie and we’re calling it “Sweetback,” originally known as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song.” So I said, “Whoa whoa whoa, what are you doing?” They said “We’re changing the title, I don’t understand the title so we’re changing it.” I said, “Thing is you don’t have to understand, this right here is for the folks. So I’m good if you don’t want to do it.” I left and walked out, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t change.

MD: You spent your whole career paying the price so that other people can be creative, you broke the barriers and laid down that ground work so that other people can be creating today, be wild and not play by the rules.

MVP: Yeah, that was (my goal). Look what we’re up against. I wasn’t taking shit, it wasn’t no big deal for me. I didn’t have no car and some other things, but so what? But as time goes on it will come back, the people who sacrificed immensely will be ok.

MD: Over the years, were there any moments where you felt kind of pressured, where you had to give in a little bit.

MVP: I was in the first picket line in 1942, I was 10 years old. Get outta here, man

MD: So at no point in time in your career did the entertainment industry faze you? It was always just, “Fuck these people I’m going to do what I want?”

MVP: No, it was basically, “Do what I thought was right for our folks and our future. If they like it, I didn’t care about them. I cared about doing what we needed to do to get done, as I foresaw it.

MD: Was there anyone else fighting that fight with you at the time?

MVP: There was nobody, son. They didn’t exist yet… I came back to America for the San Francisco Film Festival in 1968 and in America, there was no one in there who was black. It’s been years [laughs]. Sure there’s people who did what I did and took it much larger places then I did but in the 70’s, no. Who was there?

MD: Do you feel like you get the respect you deserve from the film community?

MVP: I’ve got a mirror.

MD: So you don’t need respect from others?

MVP: Look, I never been famous and I made it possible.

MD: You’ve made it possible for countless Black actors, directors, even your own son Mario. Who do you see that came after you that makes you proud?

MVP: Anyone who gets in and gets in a position to do what they need to prove themselves is fine… For example, Bill Cosby, after finishing “Sweetback” etc, um, gave me—or owed me— some money to finish the hit. Also, Bill Cosby hired me as a director for one of his television shows which he made. The (actor’s) union, they didn’t have black directors at that time. Bill Cosby did that. Everybody been nice and helping each other out, etc. but that was later. Nobody ever reached out or offered me anything.

MD: Did you want someone to reach out?

MVP: I thought it would’ve been nice, after understanding how insidious it is. For example, you know the movie Shaft? The original Shaft was in production when “Sweetback” started making money. You know what they did? They re-shot the movie and turned it Black; “Shaft” was really (supposed to be) a white detective… Because they saw “Sweetback” made an impact.

MD: People talk about “Sweetback” creating the genre of Blaxploitation. Do you feel like that was a positive impact to have? A lot of artists create something and see what other people turn it into and get discouraged.

MVP: Whether I agree or disagree with the subject matter or the product, it gave us a chance to work like we’ve never worked before. So many of the people learned their craft so they could go into other things.

Come back for part 2, dropping later this month.

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