New black cinema champion Melvin Van Peebles dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker hailed as the godfather of modern noir cinema and a pioneer of independent American cinema, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 89 years old.

His death was announced by his son Mario Van Peebles, the actor and director.

A Renaissance man whose work spanned books, theater and music, Mr. Van Peebles is best known for his third feature, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which drew mixed reviews when it was released in 1971. , sparked intense debate and became a national film. hit. The hero, Sweetback, starred on a brothel sex show, and the film sizzled with explosive violence, explicit sex, and righteous antagonism towards the white power structure. It was dedicated to “all black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man”.

Mr. Van Peebles’ fiercely independent legacy can be seen in some of the most notable noir films of the past half-century, from “She’s Gotta Have It” by Spike Lee (1986) to “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins (2016) . His death comes at a time when black storytelling is belatedly taking ascendancy in Hollywood.

“I didn’t even know I had a heritage,” he told The New York Times in 2010, when asked about his reputation and influence. “I do what I want to do. “

Not only did Mr. Van Peebles write, direct and label “Sweet Sweetback’s” and star; he also raised the money to produce it. The film demonstrated that a black director can convey a very personal vision to a large audience.

“For the first time in the history of cinema in America, a film speaks of an undeniable black conscience,” wrote Sam Washington in the Chicago Sun-Times.

In addition to making films, Mr. Van Peebles has published novels, in both French and English; wrote two Broadway musicals and produced them simultaneously; and wrote and performed spoken word albums that many have called the ancestors of rap.

During his lifetime he was also a cable car driver in San Francisco, a portrait painter in Mexico City, a street artist in Paris, a stock options trader in New York, an Air Force bomber navigator, a postman, a visual artist and, on his own, a very successful gigolo.

Mr. Van Peebles has called himself “the Rosa Parks of Black Cinema”. Along with Gordon Parks, whose 1971 film “Shaft” praised a savvy black detective, he was one of the first black filmmakers to reach large audiences.

“Sweetback,” “Shaft,” and many counterfeits published throughout the 1970s were a response to a new activism among urban black youth. The actors in the films were predominantly black, and the music was predominantly funk and soulful. Racial humiliations of whites were common, as were sex, violence, and critiques of capitalism and police brutality. Many displayed a smooth coldness. Some fictionalized outlaws.

Some critics have complained that the genre perpetuates racist myths and stereotypes. After the release of “Super Fly”, the story of a cocaine trafficker led by Mr. Parks’ son Gordon Jr., in 1972, the term “blaxploitation” (a combination of “Black” and ” exploitation ”) has become widespread. The NAACP joined with other civil rights groups to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 1972, Mr. Van Peebles countered that he challenged the “false black images” that whites use “to confuse, drain and colonize our minds”.

Melvin Van Peebles was born on the South Side of Chicago on August 21, 1932. Van was originally his middle name; it was later part of his last name.

The son of a tailor, he grew up in Phoenix, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He attended the historically black West Virginia State College (now University) before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he joined the ROTC and majored in English literature.

After graduating at age 20 in 1953, he joined the Air Force, becoming a navigator on a B-47 bomber for three years. During his service he married Maria Marx, a German actress.

After his release, Mr. Van Peebles could not be hired by a commercial airline. The newlyweds therefore traveled to Mexico City, where their son Mario was born. They then had a daughter, Megan, who died in 2006. In addition to Mario, he is survived by another son, Max; one daughter, Marguerite Van Peebles; and 11 grandchildren.

Mr. Van Peebles painted portraits in Mexico before moving to San Francisco, where he worked in the post office and drove cable cars. The cable car experience inspired his first book, “The Big Heart” (1957).

He directed several short films in San Francisco, then moved to Hollywood to pursue his cinematic dream. But the only job he could find there was as an elevator operator.

Emigrated to the Netherlands, he studied astronomy – a personal fascination – at the University of Amsterdam and theater at the Dutch National Theater. His marriage ended in divorce and he hitchhiked to Paris. He sang for coins outside theaters, wrote magazine articles on crime, and helped edit a comedy magazine. He lived, he later recalled, on $ 600 a year.

Mr. Van Peebles told People magazine in 1982 that he supplemented this meager income by helping himself with wealthy women. “I had a lady for each day of the week,” he said. “I just had to worry about my back giving way.”

He wrote five novels and a short story volume which were published in French. Several novels have also been published in English, including “A Bear for the FBI” (1968). Martin Levin, reviewing it in The Times, praised it for “having brilliantly traversed the memories of a childhood in Chicago”, much like that of the author.

After discovering that the French cultural authorities were funding films based on works written in French, Mr. Van Peebles obtained a grant to transform his novel “La Permission” into a film “The story of a three-day pass. »(1967). He was talking about a black soldier being harassed by his white comrades for having a white girlfriend.

The film premiered at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, where it won the Critics’ Choice award. Columbia Pictures then hired him to direct “Watermelon Man” (1970), a satirical comedy about a white fanatic, played by Godfrey Cambridge, who turns into a black man.

Columbia wanted Mr. Van Peebles to shoot alternate endings – one in which the protagonist becomes a black activist and another in which he finds out that it was all just a dream. Mr Van Peebles said he “forgot” to shoot the second ending.

Not liking to work for a studio, he embarked on the making of independent films. To make “Sweetback,” for $ 500,000, he combined his $ 70,000 in savings with loans, used a non-union crew, and persuaded a movie lab to give him a loan.

The plot of the film concerns a man who attacks two crooked policemen, then flees as a fugitive to Mexico, vowing to return and “collect dues.” Only two theaters, in Detroit and Atlanta, showed the film at first, but it caught fire and for several weeks surpassed “Love Story”. Its US box office was in excess of $ 15 million (around $ 100 million today), a boon for an independent film at the time.

The success of the film allowed Mr. Van Peebles to stage a musical he wrote, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” on Broadway in 1971, with an initial personal investment of $ 150,000. . The show was largely a dramatization of several albums he made in the late 1960s that were called precursors to rap music, as its lyrics were spoken rather than sung and its theme touched on the inner lives of the people. dispossessed. Junkies, prostitutes and crooked cops have told their stories.

Early sales were almost nil and reviews were lukewarm, so Mr. Van Peebles personally promoted the show to black churches and fraternal groups within a 200 mile radius. Their members came by bus.

The success of “Natural Death” led him to open on Broadway a second show he had written, “Don’t Play Us Cheap!” adventures at once – was called madness. But both made money.

The new show was as carefree as the first was gritty, and it received rave reviews. The Times’ Clive Barnes called it a “sprawling, exuberant, big-hearted spectacle.” It was made into a movie in 1973.

Mr. Van Peebles received Tony Award nominations for Best Book and Best Original Music for “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”, as well as a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Book. “Don’t play with us for cheap! Earned him a Tony nomination for best book.

A cover of “Natural Death”, co-edited with Mario Van Peebles and directed by Kenny Leon, is slated to open on Broadway next year.

Mr. Van Peebles continued to act in films and on television and sometimes to direct, sometimes in collaboration with his son Mario. In a Manhattan gallery, he exhibits paintings and multimedia works he created. He wrote off Broadway plays. He started a group called Melvin Van Peebles with Laxative.

His business acumen has earned him almost as many reviews as his artistic gifts. It once called itself “a one-man conglomerate”.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Van Peebles was one of the few black options traders on the US stock exchange – “making deals, as always,” he said. He wrote a book about it: “Bold Money: How to Get Rich in the Options Market” (1986).

In his 80s, Mr. Van Peebles – who was easily recognized by his flowing white beard and was rarely without a soggy, sometimes lit cigar – still ran for exercise five times a week and looked as irascible as never. He joked that he wouldn’t be recognized for his work until he got weaker.

“Right now I’m a little too dangerous,” he said in 2013. “I intend to stay dangerous.”

Jordan Allen contributed reporting.

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