Influential filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles – who has been described as the “godfather of black cinema” – has died at the age of 89.
Van Peebles, known for the 1970s films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, died Tuesday night at his New York home.
Actor Mario Van Peebles, son of the filmmaker and longtime creative collaborator, said: “Dad knew black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a movie worth?
“We want to be the success that we see, so we need to see ourselves free. True liberation did not mean emulating the mentality of the colonizer.
“It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
Van Peebles’ death was announced in a joint statement from his family, The Criterion Collection of prestige films of which his films were included, and arthouse distributor Janus Films.
He said: “During an unprecedented career characterized by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles has left an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and its music. “
Born in Chicago, Van Peebles first tried his hand at cinema in the 1950s, after a stint in the Air Force.
Watermelon Man, the 1970 comedy, starred a white, racist 1960s insurance salesman who wakes up to find he is black.
The Blaxploitation film Baadasssss Song by Sweet Sweetback arrived in 1971 and told the story of a black man trying to escape white cops.
Despite his success, Van Peebles turned down a three-film deal with Columbia Pictures.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins was among those who paid tribute to him after his death.
The Moonlight director said, “He made the most of every second, of EVERY damn frame and it’s true that the last time I spent time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night he absolutely did face dancing. The man absolutely LIVE. “
Ava DuVernay, another of Hollywood’s top contemporary black female directors, shared a quote from Van Peebles in her tribute.
She tweeted: “‘You mustn’t let yourself think you can’t. Do what you can do within the frame you have. And don’t look outside. Look inside.’ – the iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer and sage Melvin Van Peebles, who returned home at the age of 89. “