Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering Black filmmaker, playwright and musician, died this week at the age of 89 at his home in New York.
He was known as the godfather of modern Black cinema, and his movies burst with the sounds of soul and funk and resistance.
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Van Peebles has left behind an immense legacy in American and world cinema.
The multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.
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Racquel Gates, a professor of film at Columbia University, and the consulting producer and editor for the Melvin Van Peebles Box Set — being released by The Criterion Collection next week — discussed his work, life and legacy with The World's host Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: Van Peebles was something of a Renaissance man — a novelist, musician, painter, worked in the theater and, of course, was a filmmaker. How influential and widespread was his work?
Racquel Gates: I think we really cannot emphasize enough how immensely influential he was, not just in terms of his storytelling practices. I mean, Van Peebles really figured out a way to work outside of the Hollywood system as well as figuring out ways to articulate his vision in really subversive ways within the Hollywood studio system.
There is a certain generation of filmmakers in Africa who are influenced by his work. What did those African directors see in Van Peebles' work that they did not see elsewhere in Hollywood?
I think what filmmakers around the globe saw was somebody from a community, from a marginalized community, telling his own story and telling the story of people who had been overlooked and ignored or misrepresented by Hollywood. And we see that within the context of the 1960s, part of the Black arts movement here in the United States, but also larger global and national cinemas. And I'm thinking of somebody like Santiago Álvarez in Cuba, people who are really interested in using film as a way of articulating a political vision. He had an innate sense of confidence in what he was doing and the importance of what he was doing, giving attention to individuals and communities that had been long overlooked.
So, more of an intentional revolutionary director?
Absolutely an intentional revolutionary director. I mean, just such a clear sense of vision and purpose, and also a clear sense of where his art practice fit into larger conversations.
He lived for some time in France, I gather. Why did he move there and what effect did that have on his career and his life?
So, you know, Melvin Van Peebles was living in San Francisco and he tells the story of trying to make it as an American filmmaker. But the sort of racism of the industry made that impossible. And so, he picks up his family, has all kinds of different jobs — at one point, he was a street performer in France, he was an actor on the stage in the Netherlands for a bit — but it's in France that he's able to make the connections in order to make the film that he wants to make and really develop and hone his craft.
And was he able to achieve that in France?
Absolutely. "The Story of a Three-Day Pass," people talk about it in terms of the ways that it deals with racism. It's the story of an American GI, and his relationship with a white French woman comes out the same year as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," starring Sidney Poitier. But it's a completely different lens that Melvin Van Peebles is using, and really looking at the psychological state of the main character. But the thing that people don't talk about enough is it's such an amazing and experimental film in terms of aesthetics. It's clear that he, in conversation with the French New Wave filmmakers, you know, there's a really amazing shot, a double-dolly shot, which Spike Lee has made famous, this kind of shot where it looks like a character is floating through space, and Melvin Van Peebles uses that, and this is 1967.
For your own scholarly research, you've met and interviewed Van Peebles at his home. Give us a sense of what he was like.
It's kind of a crazy story. I had a mutual contact. I was writing an academic article about "Watermelon Man," and I asked his contact, I'd love to chat with him, do you know how to get in touch with them? And this contact gave me a phone number, and I thought it was a secretary or something. So, I called and Melvin Van Peebles answers the phone. And I said, "I'd love to chat with you." And he says, "Well, if you can get here in 20 minutes, I'll chat with you for like 10 minutes" or something like that. And so, I jump on the subway and I go over his apartment. I mean, he's in the phone book, which is sort of insane to me. He welcomed me in. We sat for two hours and he was just so incredibly generous with his time and with his knowledge and talked to me about making that film, but also his experiences in Hollywood and his thoughts on representation. And that's one of the things that's really come out, the more that people have been talking about him. It's just it is immense generosity to people.
So, just as Van Peebles dies this week, there are new audiences learning about his work. "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," is screening at the New York Film Festival this weekend; a revival of his play, "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" is slated for return to Broadway next year. What do you think all that says about his work and how his legacy is going to live on?
People talk about Melvin Van Peebles, usually in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. But what I think this demonstrates is that, the stuff that he was exploring, these ideas of Black liberation and elevating ordinary people to the level of figures really worth celebrating and really worth watching on film. I think there's universality, a timelessness about that. And I think particularly now, where people of color, both in the United States, but also around the globe, are still fighting some of these same battles, right? To have their lives celebrated and fight just to be recognized for their humanity. Those themes are just as relevant and significant as they were then.
Well, there has been so much scrutiny of the lack of diversity in Hollywood in recent years, from preproduction to acting to direction to postproduction — #OscarsSoWhite — how do you think Melvin Van Peebles processed where this arc landed in recent years as someone who is determined to bring justice to the system?
I think that Melvin Van Peebles recognized early on that the system is inherently broken. His response to that was in the 1960s: "Hollywood won't let me be a filmmaker. Screw it. I'll go to France." When he wants to film a particular ending for "Watermelon Man" and Columbia Pictures tells him, "No, we want a different ending," he just lies to them, right? He tells them he's going to shoot two endings. He only shoots one, he breaks down the sets, he sends everybody home, and then he puts Columbia in his position where they have no choice but to use his preferred ending. When he wants to make "Sweetback" and he realizes that that's never going to be a Hollywood film, he just does his own thing. I mean, I think that his response would be, when Hollywood is closing the door, you find your own way, you craft your own path, you find a new way to do the thing that you want to do, and you don't let people tell you no.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.