When you’re the first to do something, the upside is, that originality and innovation give you a free pass to be a bit shit. In 1971, director, writer, actor and composer Melvin Van Peebles made what is seen as the first blaxploitation film, with the ludicrously titled Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. Even more ludicrous than the name is the fact that it became bit of a hit at the time and that its legacy is still evident today. Because this thing is pretty terrible, top to bottom.
It’s not that Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song looks like it was made by someone who had never directed a movie before. It’s that Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song looks like a movie that was made by someone who had never even seen a movie before. Are the weird shot compositions, all over the shop editing, stilted performances and sub-amateur music score artistic choices made to subvert traditional film making? Or are they the result of a bad script, performed by bad actors, shot by a bad cinematographer, at the order of a bad director who also decided to write the bad score?
Van Peebles also stars as the titular Sweetback, a dude who’s prowess between the sheets is discovered when he works as a towel boy in a brothel. The young Sweetback is played by Van Peeble’s actual son, Mario. In an act that can only be described as child abuse, director Melvin includes a scene where his then thirteen or fourteen year old son Mario is stripped naked and simulates (at least I hope it was simulated) getting on the job with a naked, adult woman. That aint right. Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song then jumps forward to a present day 1971, where the adult Sweetback bangs chicks for a paying audience. Soon, local cops are at the door, looking for a black man to use as their patsy in an arrest. Sweetback gets the unenviable gig, escapes and that’s about it.
He later treats the female leader of a bikey gang to a seeing to as payment for their help. Which leads to another major problem with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. The character of Sweetback is a local legend for being a great root. But in every sex scene, all young and old Sweetback does is lay there, lifeless on top of the women whose minds are apparently being blown by his performance. If you’re gonna make your character a sex god, you should probably make sure he doesn’t just lay there like a dead fish.
And get this, the sex scenes aren’t simulated. Van Peebles actually banged these broads on set. How do I know this? I know this because Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song comes with the single greatest IMDB trivia entry ever. “Melvin Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea from one of the actresses during filming of one of the sex scenes in the movie. He applied for compensation from the Directors Guild because he ‘got hurt on the job’ and used the money to buy more film”.
Van Peebles obviously set out to make a very important statement about racism and oppression. The movie opens with a title card dedicating the movie to “Brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man” and closes with the declaration, “Watch out, a baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues”. But the execution of this movie is so subpar, any message Van Peebles wanted to impart is lost under the blanket of laughably bad film making. Only two good things came out of watching this horrendous movie. That amazing piece of gonorreah fuelled trivia, and the fact that I have been able to type the phrase Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song upwards of half a dozen times.