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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

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Sean Stubbs-Tyler

on 19 April 2015

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Transcript of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

'Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song'
Van Peebles, US, 1971
FM4 Section C: Single Film – Critical Study
Consider the implications of each part of the title. If an audience had no idea of the reputation of the film what would they think about it just from seeing the name.
Consider the implications of each part of the title.

If an audience had no idea of the reputation of the film what would they think about it just from seeing the name?
Van Peeples intention was not to make a film for the
same audience as his earlier film Watermelon Man.
He wanted to make a film for a black audience.
How much was the film made for?
How much did it make?
Over $15 million in its first year.
How much does this compare to other films?
This is a box office smash, and a record for independent cinema at the time.
Melvin Van Peebles wrote the screenplay, composed the music, directed the film, edited it and played the lead role.
It was initially released in 1971 in just two cinemas, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta. However, within less than two months of its release it had made it to the top of the box-office ratings.
What you think the reasons for the success of Sweetback?

To imitate Sweetback’s success in drawing in a young black audience,
The films that followed came to define their own genre of cinema, all triggered by the impact of Sweetback….
How does this differ to Sweetback in terms of style and representations?
This is known as
In these movies the black heroes achieve their goals and stand up to the oppression of the white system.
What does the term BLAXPOITATION MEAN?

Watch the trailer for Shaft (1971).

What similarities and differences can you identify between Sweetback and Shaft.

You should consider all the usual elements of film construction (mise-en-scene, performance, cinematography, editing and sound) along with narrative features such as overall structure, character types, the sorts of events including and the handling of the various phases of the narrative, especially the ending resolution.
During his most famous speech in Washington 1963, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, emphasised belief in non violence.

Listen carefully to the following extract.
Malcolm X in Mississippi just over a year later.

“I don’t think… you will find the upcoming generation of our people, especially those who have been doing some thinking, will go along with any form of nonviolence unless non-violence is going to be practiced all the way round”
Both of these men were assassinated; Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968. In 1966 there were race riots in more than forty cities across the United States and in the same year the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, which advocated the importance of violently confronting the racist white community, was formed.
The Black Panthers welcomed van Peebles’ film as
. In it the black hero hospitalises two white police officers, kills two more while evading capture, and (at the time, more outrageous than anything) escapes to Mexico.
Why do you think the audience found it shocking that Sweetback escapes to Mexico at the end ?
Sweetback sets out its confrontational political agenda from the beginning:‘This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man’. This is a film that stars the ‘Black Community’.
What does this suggest?
That ordinary black people will see themselves presented in a way they can recognise.

What impact do you think this has?
The films narrative is both physical and symbolic. Sweetback moves from the City to the Country and escapes
His journey is also a
revolutionary political
Van Peeples use of a
revolutionary film language
to make th film was a direct challenge to the
escapism of mainstream film.

The film uses the classic runaway slave narrative. He in fact uses the very image of slavery (handcuffs) to severely beat the first two officers. Maybe use clip from defiant ones?
Sweetback has been described as a charge of dynamite within the film industry. Unlike most other Blaxploitation films its actually made by a black man.
He broke Hollywood conventions with his themes as well as visual style. It visceral and psychedelic and sexual, and in this way it fits in with the
ethos and spirit of revolution of the time period.
He breaks the spacial and temporal conventions of continuity editing. The film's fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were novel features for an American movie at the time, although it is likely that Van Peebles was influenced by the avant-garde films of Jean-Luc Godard, since he was living in Paris and studying to be a director during the mid-1960s.
Look at a Poitier clip. List how these films are different both stylistically and thematically from Peebles
Over all they represent as films by white liberal Americans trying to assimilate the black representation – this is the total antithesis of the film making style and more importantly the political position of van Peebles.

How do we respond to the central character?
Is it possible to identify with him?
Do we find him too emotionally controlled, distant and cold?
Is he without emotions or incapable of emotions?
Are these the result of his social conditioning?
Are these the results of the experiences we had at the hands of the Man?
Is he nothing more than a stereotypical black male stud?
Is he something to which black males should aspire?
Is this a white middle class critical position that fails to appreciate the working-class African-American context?


How do we respond to the representation of sex and the representation of gender?
The women take in the street urchin, Sweetback, but that statutorily rape him as a 10-year old. Or, is this as, Black Panther leader Huey Newton claimed, baptising him into manhood. Women in the film experience great natural pleasure in sex. Is this threatening to middle-class sensibilities and values?
But aren’t women also seen to be nothing less than happy with working as prostitutes?
Is van Peebles choosing to negatively portray black women as whores and black men as pimps?
Or is this concern a white middle class perspective.
Picaresque fiction depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class, who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. This style of novel originated in Spain and flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and continues to influence modern literature.
"Sweetback is an anti-hero, and his story is often described as being 'picaresque'." What does this mean?
For Those who dismiss Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as just a poorly made film what counter arguments can be put forward?
The Context
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