Less than a year ago, the legendary Melvin Van Peebles passed away. He left behind a legacy as a fiercely independent, multi-hyphenate creator who changed the course of black cinema and cinema in general.
Throughout his influential life, Van Peebles has tackled and excelled in every medium of storytelling possible. He has recorded seven studio albums and four soundtracks, written 13 books and a graphic novel, designed nine plays, directed eight feature films, four short films and a music video. He almost single-handedly paved the way for Blaxploitation and created a space for African-American directors on Broadway.
On what would have been his 90th birthday, Variety ranks 10 films in which Van Peebles was directed, written or starred.
Born in Chicago, Van Peebles earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and served in the Air Force for three and a half years before moving to San Francisco to become a cable car operator. There he wrote his first book called “The Big Heart”, which inspired his ambition to get into film. Soon he was shooting his first short films “Three Pickup Men for Herrick” (1957) and “Sunlight” (1957). Although both showed his already considerable talent, a prejudiced Hollywood took no interest in him or his work.
Van Peebles quickly moved to France with the desire to pursue a career in a less hostile environment. He learns French, shoots another short film, “Les cinq cent balls” (1963), starts writing novels, and adapts one of his books into his first feature film: “L’histoire d’un laissez – spend three days. The success of “The Story of a Three Day Pass”, which he both wrote and directed, was quite impressive. Then you learn that he also composed the score and you are stunned beyond belief. Van Peebles’ prodigious and extensive talent quickly invited callbacks from Orson Welles. Hollywood, namely Columbia Pictures, was finally intrigued enough to offer Van Peebles a film – they tasked him with the identity satire “Watermelon Man” (1970).
The comedy was such a hit for Columbia, grossing $1.1 million, that the studio offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal.
And yet, Van Peebles refused the safe bet to take one of the greatest risks in Hollywood history. For his third feature, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), he did more than just write, edit, conduct and compose the music. He also played the role of the titular anti-cop hero. If the barometer of a great movie, as explained in “Dolemite is My Name” (2019) is true – there must be “funny”, “tits” and “kung fu” – then the horny and violent from Van Peebles, visually playful and aesthetically elegant detective film might be the best picture ever made. And the public, at the time, agreed.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” spawned a hit soundtrack sung by Earth, Wind & Fire and became the highest-grossing American independent film to date, grossing $15.2 million on a $150,000 budget. The triumph allowed Van Peebles to produce Tony Award-nominated musicals such as ‘Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death’ (1971) and ‘Don’t Play Us Cheap’ (1973) allowing him to prove his prowess creative in another way.
In his later life, Van Peebles became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange, collaborated with his son, writer-director Mario Van Peebles, on films, and remained an avid runner into his 80s. . He passed away in 2021 just as the Criterion Collection released a box set of his greatest works. Even before this recognition, in his work you could see how filmmakers like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett and the Blaxploitation directors who followed him were influenced by Van Peebles’ unyielding creative spirit, his desire to see Black uplift on screen, and his unrivaled artistic abilities. He’s still a man whose range feels totally ahead of its time with a vision that’s still groundbreaking, daring and daring.
Honorable mentions: “Three Pickup Men for Herrick” (1957); “Identity Crisis” (1989); “Vroom Vroom Vroom” (1996); “The Tale of a Full Belly” (2008); “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha” (2008)