Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 06, 2004 9:56 pm 
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A black history time capsule dedicated to dad

Baadasssss! (AKA “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass”) is a sweet piece of filmmaking, a pseudo-documentary that’s incestuously, oedipally real. Melvin Van Peebles, Mario’s father, originally made and starred in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 movie that became the pioneering in-your-face black inde movie that paved the way for blaxploitation x-pics. Now Mario recreates the agonized and desperate but ultimately triumphant effort to get that film made, and, emulating his father, he both directs Baadasssss! and stars in it in the role of his dad. Ossie Davis plays Melvin’s father, and a skinny kid with a big ‘Fro (Khleo Thomas) plays the thirteen-year-old Mario, whom Melvin (played by Mario) makes play himself as a boy losing his viginity in a filmed scene. The original picture (in black and white) showed white cops beating a black man and the man (played by Melvin) taking his revenge – and getting away with it. This one is full of love and life and in full color, but what it’s mainly about is a man’s desperate drive to make a difference in film, no matter how much relationships or his own physical condition might suffer.

There were huge problems for Melvin in 1971 getting a crew and the funds and dodging the unions whose requirements he couldn’t afford to meet. (He got around some of those problems by pretending he was making a porn movie.) When by the skin of his teeth and with a last minute donation of $50,000 cadged out of Bill Cosby Melvin got the movie made, wrecking his health in the process, distribution was nonexistent. But after word got around in the black community about the satisfyingly bold get-whitey message and the Black Pathers endorsed and promoted the film, it became the top grossing independent of 1971.

The white Hollywood honchos and sleezebags who punk out on Peebles get frank treatment. The Seventies world – and multicultural crew – are lovingly and honestly recreated. Mario’s treatment of his father is intimate and unflincing -- affectionate revenge perhaps for that loss of virginity sequence he was forced to star in 33 years ago. He’s bravely determined, but he doesn’t always behave very well toward those around him. “By any means necessary” – the Malcolm X slogan – describes his working principle in getting his movie made.

This is like, of all things, Touching the Void – but with lots more people and no mountains: the events are recreated and then commented upon, first by actors, then in the final credits by Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and other key players. Melvin Van Peebles himself appears only in the last brief “interview/commentary” shot and sort of winks at the audience, brandishing a cigar.

Multilayered and straightforward, Baadasssss! is surprisingly adept filmmaking and very instructive. Somehow egos didn’t get in the way here; or if they did, it all serves the story. Extremely watchable, and fun too, Baadasssss! shows how maniacally driven you’ve got to be to get an independent film made, and how insanely difficult it was for the first minority filmmaker to do so. Ironically, Baadasssss! was made on a shoestring just like Sweet Sweetback, and is getting poor distribution, despite some good notices. The winning cast includes quite a few family members.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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