Almost certainly the most important feature in the history of black filmmaking in the US, this is an angry riposte to the stereotypical characters that exist in both mainstream and blaxploitation pictures.
Written, directed, edited and scored by its star, Melvin Van Peebles, it’s a film that couldn’t care less if it makes any friends. To keep costs down, he pretended to be making a porn flick, which enabled him to hire black and non-union crew.
It can be loosely labelled a road movie, yet the relentless stream of sex, violence and prejudice, described with a mixture of realism, artifice and grim humour, isn’t supposed to entertain, but rather incite.
Sweetback (Van Peebles) is a super-pimp, doing the best he can, until the great circumstantial-existential moment of choice in his life opens up a brand new destiny for him.
He’s in the process of being taken into custody overnight as a token suspect in what the police consider to be the not-too-important murder of another black man. On the way to the station, the police get a riot call.
The white cops grab a dude off the block named Moo-Moo (Hubert Scales) and handcuff him to Sweetback. But when they gleefully begin to beat Moo-Moo, they have to uncuff Sweetback to have better access to their victim.
Sweetback sees his shot and uses his handcuffs to gouge the police in a long, gory scene.
Moo-Moo turns to him after their escape and says, “Where to now, man?”. Sweetback replies, “what’s this ‘we’ shit, man?”
The remainder of the film chronicles Sweetback’s successful escape from The Man.
Unfortunately, the inevitability of his success and the length of the chase are reminiscent of Mission: Impossible, but whether eating lizards in the desert or healing his wounds with dust moistened by his own urine, Sweetback runs cool.
The strongest element in his flight is the superb and stirring soundtrack from Earth, Wind & Fire.
At the end, after Sweetback kills killer dogs singlehandedly and makes it safely into Mexico, the sky over the mountains lights up with the message: “Watch out. This nigger’s coming back to collect some dues”.
Decades after the film premiered, Melvin Van Peebles confessed he contracted gonorrhoea whilst having actual sex during filming.
Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles