SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG: A Blaxploitation Classic That Remains All Too Relevant Today
Thanks to Xenon Pictures, numerous Blaxploitation classics are hitting video on demand services – some for the very first time. Quite possibly the most groundbreaking of them all is Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Van Peebles wrote, directed, scored, edited, co-produced and starred in the 1971 thriller about a black man on the run from racist white authorities.
Energetic, angry, and packed with graphic sex and violence, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an absolute firecracker of a film and – when watched in 2018 – an unpleasant reminder that race relations in America remain as tortured as ever today.
Man On The Run
A boy raised in a Los Angeles brothel and nicknamed “Sweet Sweetback” for his sexual prowess grows up to be an in-demand sex worker himself. (Legend has it that the film’s many graphic sex scenes involving Sweetback were unsimulated – though one hopes that the opening scene, in which a young Sweetback loses his virginity to an adult woman, was not, as that scene stars Van Peebles’ son Mario, then only 14.)
One night, Sweetback (as played by the adult Van Peebles) is performing in a sex show for customers at the brothel when two white cops come in to question his boss, Beetle (Simon Chuckster). The cops are under pressure to bring in a suspect for the murder of a black man and want Beetle to lend them Sweetback, promising to release him in a few days due to lack of evidence.
Beetle acquiesces, and the cops “arrest” Sweetback. However, their plan goes awry when they stop, arrest, and brutally beat a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). A furious Sweetback beats the cops comatose in defense of Mu-Mu and is forced to go on the run. Heading for the Mexico border with authorities in hot pursuit, Sweetback attempts to seek refuge with an ex-girlfriend (who demands sex before she will help him), a priest (who worries that if he helps him the cops will shut down the rehab center he runs), and even the Hells Angels (led by a woman, who naturally gets to take advantage of Sweetback’s very special set of skills while helping him).
Meanwhile, Beetle gets deafened by overzealous cops who fire guns near his ears in an attempt to get him to share Sweetback’s whereabouts (which he doesn’t even know) and the police commissioner gets so riled up over Sweetback’s escape that he utters a racial slur on television. But while Sweetback is subject to a nationwide manhunt for daring to defend his fellow man, the white policemen face no justice for their crimes.
Fire and Fury
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a revolutionary film in both form and subject matter. From its opening credits sequence that kicks off with “Starring: The Black Community” to its unapologetic portrayal of black rage and revenge, the film gives a much-needed and not at all sanitized look at the trials and tribulations one faces on a daily basis simply by being black in America. As Sweetback, Van Peebles barely speaks, but his face so clearly conveys the anger he feels at this injustice that for him to speak aloud is really unnecessary. Valued by white women only for his perceived sexual prowess and feared by white men for the same reason, throughout the film Sweetback is treated more like a piece of meat than a man.
The structure of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is almost episodic, jumping from one encounter of Sweetback’s to the next. Each sequence is connected by a montage of Sweetback on the run, backed by an energetic funk soundtrack with songs from Earth, Wind & Fire. The nontraditional editing – fast-paced and heavy on jump cuts and double exposure – increases the film’s frenetic quality. Of course, the crazy editing combined with a sound mix that isn’t the highest quality even in this restored version means that it can often be hard to follow exactly what is going on in the film. But one doesn’t need to catch every last word to understand what Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is trying to say about the demonization of black men in America.
In Sweetback, we can see the faces of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and so many others reflected back at us, clear as day – and in the faces of the film’s white policemen, we can see the cops who have yet to be held accountable for these men’s deaths. That’s why, even in the moments where Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song feels haphazardly made and borderline silly (usually in the super-sexual parts, to be honest), one cannot help but feel the underlying gravity of its message – one that is all too timely today.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Conclusion
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is not an easy film to watch – but it’s not supposed to be, and it shouldn’t be. That a film released in 1971 remains accurate in its portrayal of the way the black community is persecuted by police in America in 2018 gives the film an added emotional heft.
It’s impossible not to feel Sweetback’s rage throughout the film, especially knowing how little anything has changed in America nearly half a century since its release.
What do you think? Is a film like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song still worth watching in 2018 and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released on video on demand on July 3, 2018.
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Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Film School Rejects, Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Bitch Flicks, TV Fanatic, and Just Press Play. When not watching, making, or writing about films, she can usually be found on Twitter obsessing over soccer, BTS, and her cat.