In the early '70s, writer-director Melvin Van Peebles tired of being racist Hollywood's "niggerologist," threw caution to the wind, and set out to make an independent film. The result was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), a politically bold, commercially viable, sexy action-adventure starring, out of desperation, the filmmaker himself. Popping up not once but twice in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a youngster named Mario, Melvin's son. Over thirty years later, Mario Van Peebles has revisited his own entry into the business and his father's great and taxing triumph with Baadasssss!, a comedy-drama account of the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Mario bases his film on his father's book (also called Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) about the troubled making of a film which has become inseparable from the tongue-in-cheek term "blaxploitation." As Mario convincingly frames the story, Sweetback was a little bit Hollywood (the undying principle that sex and violence sell) and a whole lot empowerment. In some of the film's liveliest scenes, Melvin (played by Mario) goes into a trance-like state and whips up his story: a male prostitute, having saved a Black Panther from police brutality, goes on the run from the white establishment ("the Man"). Needless to say, this story was a tough sell to the Hollywood establishment, but when Van Peebles' gregarious soon-to-be-producer tells him, "Good things do not come to those who wait," we know we're off to the races.
Melvin tenuously ropes in an investor, casts unconventional types for a street realism ("all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted"), and sets his sights on a diverse, non-union crew. Soon, the investor is gone, all of the union actors drop out, and the crew begins to mutiny. But Van Peebles determines not to back down: he'll use his own money, he'll star in the picture himself, and he'll take on all of the crew jobs if necessary. In portraying his father's heroic single-mindedness--which scarily borders on self-destructiveness but proves to be self-renewal--Mario Van Peebles has made the film of his career to date and played his finest role, with great clarity, charisma, and credibility.
As a filmmaker, Mario occasionally stumbles here. Since Sweetback was shot handheld, Mario presses the point by mostly shooting Baadasssss! handheld, but the cramped interiors and tight compositions often produce a garish effect. Some of the acting is overripe, particularly Rainn Wilson as producer Bill Harris. Among the interesting cameo performers are Ossie Davis and, as a DJ, writer-director John Singleton. The domestic elements of the story, with Davis as Mario's grandfather and Khleo Thomas (Holes) as Mario, risk insufferability while questioning Melvin's brusque parenting and quickly resolving the issue. By resonating the Sweetback refrain ("You bled my mama,/You bled my papa,/But you won't bleed me!") throughout Baadasssss! and, of course, by playing his own father, Mario justifies this thread while never quite thematically mastering it. (Also, while it seems hard to overstate the achievement of Sweetback, given the obstacles Melvin faced, Mario manages by suggesting it was the first hit American independent film, forgetting Frank Perry's 1962 film David and Lisa, among others.)
Ultimately, from the fake documentary interviews which begin Baadasssss! to the real ones which end it, Mario Van Peebles does a fine job of telling this important story from film history and imparting its lessons once more to a forgetful public. In the film's most fully realized image, Mario-as-Melvin steps through his writing-room looking glass and into a street populated with his visions for Sweetback: in this moment, Mario encapsulates the story of Melvin then and Mario now.