Van Peebles Career Chronicled

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Melvin Van Peebles is truly a Renaissance Man, having not only acted in, but sang, produced, edited, and written scripts and scores for movies such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song and Broadway plays such as Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He probably first found fame in 1970 when he directed a comedy called Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures.

But he really made his seminal contribution to cinema a year later with Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, an independent flick he shot on a shoestring budget. What made this movie so remarkable was that it grossed over $10 million dollars at the box office without studio backing, thereby proving to Hollywood that there was a market for Black-oriented entertainment. However, where Sweetback presented African-Americans with dignity, intelligence and political awareness, the Blaxploitation Era which ensued was marked by pictures filled with pimps, hustlers, whores and all sorts of sorry stereotypes.

“How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company,� is a brash bio-pic which chronicles the life of Van Peebles, warts and all. It shows the feisty 73 year old to be as irascible as ever as he explains how, frustrated by racism in America, he abandoned the U.S. for France at an early age. Overseas, his artistic endeavors were encouraged and developed before the expatriate eventually returned home with a determination to get his projects done, come hell or high water.

Among the many luminaries making appearances in the picture are Melvin’s son, Mario, filmmaker Spike Lee, photographer Gordon Parks, and musician Gil Scott-Heron. But the irrepressible Van Peebles doesn’t really need all the accolades, as this edgy documentary easily convinces the viewer of its subject’s considerable genius, as a role model who managed to maintain his integrity, and to make a buck while thumbing his nose at a racist system designed to suppress his revolutionary ideas.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 85 minutes
Studio: Film Forum

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