If you go into Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, expecting “blaxploitation” as we’ve come to know it, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. You’d think, given the film’s elevated status, more folks would understand the fact that this is a supremely political polemic against the system. But no, first time viewers expect something like Shaft or Superfly, and get all weirded out by the fact that this is 50% French New Wave and the rest is unapologetically pro-black and anti-establishment.
“Director/writer/producer/editor/composer Melvin Van Peebles stars as a black orphan raised in a brothel and groomed to be a sex show performer. Set up by his boss and two corrupt cops for a murder he didn’t commit, Sweetback escapes custody and is thrust into an increasingly hallucinogenic world of violence and bigotry where no one can be trusted, and the possibility of death lurks at every corner…”
The movie opens with the titles, “This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the Man,” and later on goes to, “Starring THE BLACK COMMUNITY and BRER SOUL.” How are you surprised by the fact that Sweetback slugs a couple of cops, goes on the run, and it’s all because a racist police commissioner wants to make a good impression on a bunch of reporters? This is a movie that was embraced by the Black Panthers in Detroit, and helped turn it into a massive success. Don’t expect this to make allowances for your feelings.
The film looks amazing. It’s had quite a few releases over the years, but they’ve never quite managed to overcome the budgetary limitations of the original film: the night shots were always nearly obscured, and due to the fact that so many of the elements were sourced from different films, it’s always been difficult to figure how much of the hallucinatory, confusing viewing experience was intentional, and how much of it was because it was 16mm blown up to 35mm.
Suffice it to say, Vinegar Syndrome has managed to correct everything to the best of their abilities, and Sweetback looks absolutely amazing here. The scenes of double-exposure aren’t the cloudy mess they’ve usually been, and the way the colorized inverted negatives look pop off the screen with a heretofore unseen vibrancy.
There’s a lot of overlap between the various interview and documentary extras on the Sweetback Blu-ray, so you’ll hear a few stories repeatedly, to say nothing of what’s covered in Travis Crawford’s booklet essay. Thankfully, that allows for probably the fullest story of Van Peebles’ seminal film, and the man certainly knows how to tell an entertaining and interesting story, although in “The Real Deal (What it was…is!),” Van Peebles says, “There’s a thousand stories I could tell, but I don’t think I will.”
After talking about eating a lizard and getting the clap while shooting a sex scene, suddenly he’s coy. Thankfully, that’s the only moment in all of the material wherein someone pulls their punches. Even “One Baadasssss Woman!” — an interview with actress Niva Ruschell — sees the story of Sweetback’s defloration at the beginning of the film rendered in something like open honesty.
It’s all a fantastic package, and those who want to enjoy Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a film, they can, but those who want to delve into every aspect possible regarding its production, filming, reception, and legacy will also find themselves swimming in a pool of content.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is available on Blu-ray / DVD combo from Vinegar Syndrome.