Written by: Yayoi L. Winfrey | October 2nd, 2009
The problem with interviewing Melvin Van Peebles is that you never know whether he’s truthfully answering your questions or if he’s just trying to be a baadasssss—something he excels at as evidenced by his string of irreverent films and the cap he’s fond of wearing that states so.
Either he’s the most modest successful filmmaker ever, or else he’s just plain ornery. For every inquiry tossed his way, Van Peebles throws back a shrug and a response that infers he doesn’t believe—despite all the accolades and awards—that he’s made much of an impact on the world of cinema.
His first movie, in 1970, was a Columbia Pictures studio project called Watermelon Man about a white man who wakes up black one morning. In spite of its commercial success, Van Peebles felt he had no control over the way it was marketed and distributed. So, he made the next one—Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song—with his own money. He lucked out when Bill Cosby fronted him $50,000 for the controversial film that featured Van Peebles’ own then-teen son, Mario, having sex with a prostitute. Not only was the movie raunchy, but its theme of black male empowerment in 1971 delivered a potent message of insurrection. Unbelievably, it landed national theatrical distribution.
So, how was Van Peebles able to get Sweetback onto the big screen?
“I found a distributor in bankruptcy and convinced him,” he chuckles. “But it was only two theaters that would show the movie. After the first week of grosses, everybody started calling.”
Born on Chicago’s Southside, Van Peebles worked in his father’s tailor shop every day after school from the time he was ten. He had one sibling, a sister 20 years younger, whom he didn’t see until she was two because he’d moved to Mexico right after graduating from college at 20.
What lured him to travel south of the border?
“I was hiding out from the law,” he answers nonchalantly. “Sorta, kinda.”
Van Peebles also earned a Ph.d. in math and astronomy, flew jet bombers in the U.S. Air Force, is an accomplished painter and sculptor, worked for the post office, drove a cable car, and worked as a grip in San Francisco–which is how he got his start in filmmaking.
“A task is a task,” he intones. “It only matters if you like it or not.”
In San Francisco, Van Peebles made several short films and on their strength went to Europe. In Holland and France, he worked in theater and sold his writing while composing musical scores. He soon became the expat Afro-American darling of the European arts scene. Since 1960, Van Peebles has lived in Paris, Manhattan and Los Angeles depending on where the work is.
“I’ve been pretty much, over the last 2 1/2 years, marooned in New York because of this film, book and soundtrack,” he says referring to his latest work Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus ItchyFooted Mutha. “New York is the most convenient place. Before that, France. It just depends on where the work is. I follow my wealth.”
I wonder aloud how long it took to make Confessions Of A.
“Not Confessions Of A,” he corrects me. “It’s Confessionsofa. It rhymes with Mutha.”
So, how long did it take?
“76 years,” he replies implying his chronological age.
In Confessionsofa, we follow Van Peebles playing himself from age 14 to present day. After joining the merchant marine, he travels extensively before returning to his woman in Harlem. The film is a jazzy, psychedelic-drenched collage of his life infused with a graffiti-like quality. It is, in fact, based on a graphic novel Van Peebles wrote and illustrated.
“I don’t see what I like to see, so I do it,” he explains.
Because of his talents as a visual artist, writer, musician, producer, director and actor, he’s virtually a one-man show.
“I do what I like to do,” he says. “In Mexico, I survived as a portrait painter. A lot of times when I do a Broadway show, I get to use a number of those skills.”
In Seattle to teach a master class at the Northwest Film Forum, Van Peebles doesn’t seem to have a lesson plan.
“The person who has you there is aware of what the audience wants you to teach, what they’ll find most instructive,” he states defensively.
As for upcoming projects, Van Peebles is making a concert movie of an off-Broadway show he recently closed.
“It’s sort of sticking it to me,” he explains. “It’s called Unmitigated Truth, and will open in February. I’m also doing Sweetback as an opera.”
Does the wise filmmaker—nominated for numerous Emmys, Grammys and Tonys–have any words of wisdom?
“Yeah,” he giggles. “Keep on truckin’.”
What about advice for upcoming filmmakers?
“No,” he says then adds, “People say, you have no advice for filmmakers? Well, I have a pretty good formula. I look in the paper; if I’m not in the obituary column I get my ass up. Not very complicated, is it?”
With the new technology available today, anyone can be a filmmaker. But the “Godfather of Independent Cinema” sees that as being neither good nor bad.
“I would imagine a lot of brilliant minds have been stifled and, meantime back at the ranch, a lot of horseshit will be stifled, too,” Van Peebles says. “You have the good and the bad, too–and the ugly.”
By his own admission, Van Peebles is “pretty much a loner” who “retired at 23” although his body of work would prove otherwise regarding the latter. The loner part, however, seems true and entirely self-inflicted.
Regardless of his personal life, Van Peebles is a pioneering filmmaker highly respected for his contributions. Did he have a blueprint for that?
“I just see a bumble bee that’s aerodynamically unsound to fly, but he flies anyway,” he explains. “A lot of people told me ‘no’, so it equaled itself out.”
Does he have a favorite artist of any kind?
Yes, he nods. Would he care to mention them by name?
“That’s what I have a mirror for,” Van Peebles laughs, visibly amused by his answer.
“I’m trying to get along by getting along,” he adds. “Life don’t give no green stamps.”