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NEW YORK (AP) – Melvin Van Peebles, the revolutionary filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the wave of ‘blaxploitation’ of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has passed away. He was 89 years old.

In a statement, his family said Van Peebles, father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday night at his Manhattan home.

“Dad knew black pictures matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to be the success that we see, so we have to see ourselves free. True liberation did not mean imitating the mentality of the colonizer. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all. “

Sometimes referred to as the “godfather of modern black cinema,” the all-rounder Van Peebles has written numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums – playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader in the stock market.

But he was best known for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, one of the most influential films of his time. The low-budget arthouse film he wrote, produced, directed, acted and recorded was the frantic, hypersexual and violent story of a black street con artist on the run from police after he killed white officers who beat a black revolutionary.

With his harsh, harsh depiction of ghetto life, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a black point of view, he set the tone for a genre that has made dozens of films in the world. over the next few years and sparked a debate over whether black people were recognized or exploited.

“All the films about black people so far have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms, speech and rhythm,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the release. of the movie.

“I could have called it ‘The Ballad of the Indomitable Candy.’ But I wanted the target audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them, “he told The Associated Press in 2003.” So I said ‘Ba-ad Asssss’, like you really say it. “

Made for around $ 500,000 (including $ 50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $ 14 million at the box office despite an X rating, limited distribution, and mixed reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of commodifying injustice and called the film “outrage.”

Van Peebles, who complained fiercely to the Motion Picture Association about the X rating, gave the film the slogan: “Rated X by a all white jury.”

But as a result of its success, Hollywood achieved an untapped following and began producing box office hits like “Shaft” and “Superfly” which were also known to bring in top musicians like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes. work on the soundtracks.

Many versions of Hollywood were exaggerated crime dramas, filled with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in the white and black press.

“What Hollywood did – they took out the political message, added the cartoons – and blaxploitation was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The colored intelligentsia was not very happy with it.”

In fact, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality coined the phrase “blaxploitation” and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among fans of the genre in the 21st century was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-winning “Django Unchained,” was openly influenced by blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns.

On Wednesday, a younger generation of black filmmakers mourned the death of Van Peebles. Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” said on Twitter, “He made the most of every second, of EVERY damn frame.”

After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to retain his independence.

“I will only work with them on my terms,” ​​he said. “I whipped the man’s ass on his own ground. I’m number one at the box office – that’s how America measures it – and I did it myself. Now they want me, but I’m in no rush.

Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals such as “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap”. He then wrote the movie “Greased Lighting” starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first black racing driver.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a self-help financial guide called “Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market”.

Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on August 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.

After his military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portrait painter, then moved to San Francisco, where he began writing short stories and directing short films.

Van Peebles quickly made it to Hollywood, but was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to Holland to take graduate courses in astronomy while studying at the Dutch National Theater.

Eventually he dropped out of school and moved to Paris, where he learned that he could join the French Directors Guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly learned the language on his own and wrote several novels.

The one he did in a feature film. “La Permission / The Story of the Three Day Pass” was the story of an affair between a black American soldier and a French woman. It won the Critics’ Choice Award at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival and Van Peebles caught Hollywood’s attention.

The following year he was hired to direct and write the score for “Watermelon Man”, the story of a white fanatic (played by the white-faced comic Godfrey Cambridge) who one day wakes up as a man. black.

With the money earned from the project, Van Peebles got to work on “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”.

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


This story has been updated to correct the first name from the comic book that stars in “Watermelon Man”. He’s Godfrey Cambridge, not Godfey.