Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

97 mins | Drama | April 1971

Director:

Melvin Van Peebles

Producer:

Melvin Van Peebles

Cinematographer:

Bob Maxwell

Production Company:

Yeah, Inc.
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HISTORY

Although contemporary reviews, press releases and news items all list the film's title as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song , in the onscreen credits, it is spelled Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song , with a space. At the beginning of the film, the sequence of the young “Sweetback” being fed by the prostitutes is intercut with scenes of the adult Sweetback running from the police. The following French quotation and its translation are then shown onscreen: “…Sire, ceci n’est pas un ode a la brutalite que l’artiste aurait invente mais un hymne sorti de la bouche de la realite…(Incantation traditionelle de Moyenage)…Sire, these lines are not a hommage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality…(Traditional prologue of the Dark Ages).” The quotations are followed by a written dedication: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.” The film then cuts back to the women watching young Sweetback eating. Soon after, while Sweetback is being sexually initiated by one of the prostitutes, the onscreen credits appear over the scene. In the opening cast credits, which begin with “Starring The Black Community and Brer Soul,” actor Jerry Days’s surname is spelled Days, while in the ending cast credits, which are alphabetical, his surname is listed as Day.
       Mario Van Peebles’ onscreen credit, the last credit of the film, reads: “Written, Composed, Produced, Directed and Edited by.” The cast credit for Van Peebles, who plays the adult Sweetback, is Brer Soul, which was the name of his successful 1969 record album. Clyde Houston's credit reads: ... More Less

Although contemporary reviews, press releases and news items all list the film's title as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song , in the onscreen credits, it is spelled Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song , with a space. At the beginning of the film, the sequence of the young “Sweetback” being fed by the prostitutes is intercut with scenes of the adult Sweetback running from the police. The following French quotation and its translation are then shown onscreen: “…Sire, ceci n’est pas un ode a la brutalite que l’artiste aurait invente mais un hymne sorti de la bouche de la realite…(Incantation traditionelle de Moyenage)…Sire, these lines are not a hommage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality…(Traditional prologue of the Dark Ages).” The quotations are followed by a written dedication: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.” The film then cuts back to the women watching young Sweetback eating. Soon after, while Sweetback is being sexually initiated by one of the prostitutes, the onscreen credits appear over the scene. In the opening cast credits, which begin with “Starring The Black Community and Brer Soul,” actor Jerry Days’s surname is spelled Days, while in the ending cast credits, which are alphabetical, his surname is listed as Day.
       Mario Van Peebles’ onscreen credit, the last credit of the film, reads: “Written, Composed, Produced, Directed and Edited by.” The cast credit for Van Peebles, who plays the adult Sweetback, is Brer Soul, which was the name of his successful 1969 record album. Clyde Houston's credit reads: "Production Manager and Assistant Director." Bob Maxwell is listed onscreen both as the Director of Photography, in a solo title card, and with Jose Garcia as a Cinematographer on the next, joint title card. Garcia also served as the second unit director. At the end of the film, after Sweetback has escaped into Mexico, the following written prologue appears onscreen: “Watch out. A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…” In the film Sweetback has only a few lines of dialogue. Optical effects, such as split screens, psychedelic colors and superimposed images, as well as stylized and choppy editing, are used frequently to emphasize the disorientation felt by the characters. The songs in the film often directly comment on the action as it occurs. The onscreen credits note that the song “Come on Feet” was courtesy of A&M Records.
       According to Filmfacts , the picture’s budget was $500,000, some of which came from Van Peebles’ earnings from his 1970 film Watermelon Man (see below) and some from a personal loan from prominent African-American entertainer Bill Cosby. As reported by the New Yorker review, Van Peebles made the film cheaply by “pretending it was a nude film. He wanted the aid of non-union people; he got it by affiliating with the lower depths of skin flicks, which are allowed…to operate outside union rules.” Other contemporary sources noted that one of the reasons Van Peebles used non-union labor was so that he could employ more African-American crew members, who he felt were underrepresented in Hollywood unions. A Jun 1971 Var article reported that deferred lab and equipment fees also helped to manage the film’s budget. In a 21 Jun 1971 Newsweek article, Van Peebles stated that he decided to play the leading role only after finding that “experienced black actors worried about the gamy dialogue and shots of frontal nudity.” Van Peebles added that the picture had been shot in 19 days, and other contemporary sources noted that it had been shot primarily in the Watts area of Los Angeles.
       According to Filmfacts and other contemporary sources, the film had not been officially submitted to the MPAA for a rating by the time of its release. According to a Mar 1971 letter written to Van Peebles, however, by MPAA president Jack Valenti, which is contained in the film’s file at the AMPAS Library, the picture was screened by the Code and Rating Administration on 4 Jan 1971 and rated X. In the letter, Valenti informed Van Peebles that the ratings program was “entirely voluntary,” and he did not have to accept the rating or advertise it. According to Mar 1971 trade paper news items, Van Peebles was threatening to sue the MPAA unless the film officially was given a separate or “non-rating” specifically for black audiences. Van Peebles maintained that an X rating would be detrimental to the film financially, as some media outlets refused to accept advertising for X-rated films, and also that the MPAA was “participating in ‘cultural genocide’ by imposing white judgments on black-oriented subject matter,” according to a 23 Mar 1971 DV article. Although Van Peebles extensively publicized the picture as having been rated X by “an all-white jury,” and a few reviews listed the rating as X, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released in 1971 with what was termed a “Self-imposed X rating” by most reviews. Later MPAA documents indicate that a formal rating was not given to the film until 1974, when it was rated R.
       The film received mixed reviews upon its release. William Wolf, writing for Cue , applauded the movie, stating that it was “groundbreaking filmmaking, as strong and certain in its art as in its like-it-or-lump-it stance.” Although the Newsweek reviewer termed Sweetback “a mythic figure, the sexually potent champion of a politically impotent people,” the New York magazine critic lambasted the director, asserting: “The terms Van Peebles resorts to are astounding at this stage of racial discussion or argument. He uses every stereotype that blacks have accused whites of making of blacks….”
       On 18 May 1971, DV reported that Van Peebles had filed a one million dollar lawsuit against exhibitor Ben Sack, the owner of a Boston theater chain, for having cut approximately nine minutes of footage from the picture, which, the director claimed, violated Sack’s contract with him. According to a 26 May 1971 HR news item, a federal judge ruled that Sack could not alter the film and must show it in its entirety. According to an unsourced but contemporary article contained in the film’s file at the AMPAS Library, the picture was prevented from being exhibited in the Greater Miami area by two special assistant state attorneys and a criminal court judge who threatened to file charges of obscenity against any theater showing the film.
       In a 2 Jun 1971 article about the lawsuit against Sack, Var reported that Van Peebles initially had offered the picture to major studios to distribute, but they would not agree to his financial terms nor to his desire for artistic control over the advertising. The exploitation-oriented company Cinemation Industries, Inc. run by Jerry Gross, ultimately won the rights to distribute the film in the U.S. The article noted that Van Peebles owned “100% of the film, including album and book rights.” According to an Aug 1971 Time article, the film had had only limited, albeit successful, engagements to that date, but due to Van Peebles’ hard-hitting publicity and word-of-mouth, the picture was due to “re-open next month” in 60 New York theaters and 140 theaters around the country. The picture was a financial hit, with a 4 Jun 1972 NYT article reporting that it had grossed in excess of ten million dollars, with some industry analysts predicting that it would become “the most lucrative independent production of all time.” Although a 20 Aug 1972 NYT article reported that Van Peebles was planning a sequel to the film, it was not produced.
       Contemporary sources report that during its 1971 release, the film did not have a foreign distribution deal. According to a Sep 1980 Var article, when the film was considered for the 1980 Adelaide International Film Festival in Australia, it had never been exhibited outside the U.S. except for one showing in France “some time ago.” It was banned from being screened at the Adelaide Festival because of child pornography laws, as South Australia’s attorney general felt that the opening scenes in which the young Sweetback is sexually initiated were indecent and too explicit. In Aug 1983, Var reported that the distribution rights to the film, which had never been shown on television to that point, had reverted to Van Peebles, who in turn sold them to Kino International. Kino had begun a limited theatrical re-release of the picture, and intended to expand its bookings into major cities because of the film’s “great status as an American independent film.”
       Along with the 1971 detective drama Shaft (see above), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is often credited with starting the controversial yet highly popular and profitable Blaxploitation genre. The genre usually featured strong yet sometimes morally ambivalent African-American men in a gritty, urban setting. According to Filmfacts , when describing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song , Van Peebles stated: “I wanted a victorious film—a film where [black moviegoers] could walk out standing tall.” Eventually the genre featured African-American actresses such as Pam Grier, who gained iconic status through her mid-1970s films, which included the 1974 cult hit Foxy Brown . The Blaxploitation genre expanded in the mid-1970s to encompass loose adaptations of “white” movies aimed at black audiences, such as the 1974 Cinemation release The Black Godfather , an African-American version of the 1972 Paramount Pictures production The Godfather .
       The Blaxploitation genre and its filmmakers were very controversial throughout the 1970s, with detractors accusing the pictures of presenting negative, stereotypical representations of African-Americans as violent, misogynistic and obsessed with sex and drugs. In a statement lashing out against Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song , printed in LAT in Nov 1971, the influential Kuumba Workshop of Chicago, composed of African-American artists, asserted that the film “presents no positive images of black people or the black condition,” and also stated that “Van Peebles pictures sexual freakishness as an essential and unmistakable part of black reality and history.” An opposing view was expressed by Huey P. Newton, then minister of defense of the Black Panther Party, who extensively praised the film for its revolutionary qualities, according to contemporary sources.
       Numerous NYT articles throughout the 1970s, such as one printed on 4 Jun 1972, detailed the debate about whether black filmmakers should “concentrate on entertainment, or... communicate, in a serious manner, the various aspects of the black experience.” Although some African-American groups, such as CORE, which hoped to start a black review board, continued to be critical of Blaxploitation films, other groups pointed out that black directors, writers, actors and other crew members were making advances in increased employment and higher salaries, even though the majority of the films’ profits were going to white-owned production and distribution companies.
       Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song marked the screen debut of Van Peebles’ son Mario, who played Sweetback as a child and is credited onscreen as Mario Peebles. Van Peebles’ daughter Megan also made her screen acting debut in the picture, although she appeared in only one more film, the 1985 picture South Bronx Heroes . As an adult, Mario Van Peebles became an actor and filmmaker, and in 2003, co-wrote, produced and directed the film Baadasssss! (also known as How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass ). A biographical movie about his father, the picture centered on the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and featured the younger Van Peebles playing his father. Several clips from the 1971 film are including in the 2003 release. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
24 May 1971.
---
Cue
24 Apr 1971.
---
Daily Variety
23 Mar 1971.
---
Daily Variety
21 Apr 1971.
---
Daily Variety
18 May 1971.
---
Filmfacts
1971
pp. 228-31.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Mar 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Mar 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
26 May 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
11 Jun 1971.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
15 May 1971.
---
Los Angeles Times
15 May 1971.
---
Los Angeles Times
21 Nov 1971
Calendar, p. 22.
New York
3 May 1971.
---
New York Times
24 Apr 1971
p. 17.
New York Times
9 May 1971
Section 2, p. 1, 11.
New York Times
4 Jun 1972.
---
New York Times
18 Jul 1972.
---
New York Times
20 Aug 1972.
---
New York Times
17 Dec 1972.
---
New York Times
26 Aug 1973.
---
New Yorker
19 Jun 1971.
---
Newsweek
10 May 1971.
---
Newsweek
21 Jun 1971
p. 89.
Time
16 Aug 1971
p. 47.
Variety
21 Apr 1971
p. 17.
Variety
2 Jun 1971
p. 3, 6.
Variety
24 Sep 1980.
---
Variety
3 Aug 1983.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A film of Melvin Van Peebles
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d unit dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
COSTUMES
Sweetback's ward by
MUSIC
Orchestra & orchestrations
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Optical eff
Optical eff
Titles, processing by
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
[Prod asst]
SOURCES
SONGS
"This Little Light of Mine," traditional spiritual
"Come on Feet," "Hoppin' John: Voices," "Hoppin' John: Hoppin' John," "Mojo Woman: Voices," and "Won't Bleed Me," music and lyrics by Mario Van Peebles.
DETAILS
Release Date:
April 1971
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 23 April 1971
Copyright Claimant:
Yeah, Inc.
Copyright Date:
31 March 1971
Copyright Number:
LP40307
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
97
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

When the women of a Los Angeles brothel find a starving, ragged twelve-year-old boy, they delight in feeding him and making him their towel boy. Soon after, the now-healthy boy is sexually initiated by one of the prostitutes, who moans that he has a “sweet sweetback.” Called Sweetback by everyone, the boy grows to manhood and performs in sex shows at the brothel. Sweetback’s sexual prowess becomes legendary, and both black and white female audience members are eager to join him. One night, Beetle, the proprietor, is harassed by two white detectives, who report that the commissioner is pressuring them to find the killer of a recent murder victim. In order to make themselves look good, the detectives want to take one of Beetle’s male workers to the station house and pretend that they are interrogating a suspect. Reluctantly, Beetle orders the taciturn Sweetback to accompany the detectives, who have a “mutual” profitable relationship with Beetle. Although initially the detectives do not handcuff Sweetback, they do so when they leave their car to investigate a community disturbance. After apprehending Mu-Mu, a black political activist, the detectives handcuff him to Sweetback, then take the men to an isolated area in order to beat Mu-Mu. One of the men uncuffs Sweetback, but, unable to watch the defenseless Mu-Mu being beaten, Sweetback uses the handcuffs like brass knuckles to knock the detectives unconscious. When Mu-Mu asks where they are to go next, Sweetback coldly dismisses him and begins running. As Sweetback runs through the night, the police raid the brothel but find no traces of the fugitive. In the morning, ... +


When the women of a Los Angeles brothel find a starving, ragged twelve-year-old boy, they delight in feeding him and making him their towel boy. Soon after, the now-healthy boy is sexually initiated by one of the prostitutes, who moans that he has a “sweet sweetback.” Called Sweetback by everyone, the boy grows to manhood and performs in sex shows at the brothel. Sweetback’s sexual prowess becomes legendary, and both black and white female audience members are eager to join him. One night, Beetle, the proprietor, is harassed by two white detectives, who report that the commissioner is pressuring them to find the killer of a recent murder victim. In order to make themselves look good, the detectives want to take one of Beetle’s male workers to the station house and pretend that they are interrogating a suspect. Reluctantly, Beetle orders the taciturn Sweetback to accompany the detectives, who have a “mutual” profitable relationship with Beetle. Although initially the detectives do not handcuff Sweetback, they do so when they leave their car to investigate a community disturbance. After apprehending Mu-Mu, a black political activist, the detectives handcuff him to Sweetback, then take the men to an isolated area in order to beat Mu-Mu. One of the men uncuffs Sweetback, but, unable to watch the defenseless Mu-Mu being beaten, Sweetback uses the handcuffs like brass knuckles to knock the detectives unconscious. When Mu-Mu asks where they are to go next, Sweetback coldly dismisses him and begins running. As Sweetback runs through the night, the police raid the brothel but find no traces of the fugitive. In the morning, Sweetback appears at Beetle’s apartment, and the nervous older man tells Sweetback that although he will protect him, he must lay low for a while to preserve the brothel's relationship with the police. After Sweetback leaves, two patrolmen find him and, seeing that one side of the handcuffs is still locked on his wrist, realize that he is the suspect they are seeking. When one radios the commissioner, who has a swarm of reporters in his office, the commissioner tacitly tells the policeman to beat Sweetback until he reveals Mu-Mu’s whereabouts. After punching Sweetback, the policemen decide to drive him to a more quiet location. When they enter their car, however, it bursts into flames from fluid poured onto it by three black teenagers. A cheering crowd watches as Sweetback runs away and the policemen attempt to extinguish their burning vehicle. Sweetback then locates a former girl friend, who insists that he satisfy her sexually before she removes his handcuffs. Meanwhile, Beetle is interrogated by the police, who torture him by shooting a pistol directly behind his ear, destroying his eardrum. When Beetle still refuses to talk, they shoot the gun off behind his other ear, leaving him completely deaf. Sweetback attempts to find refuge with a preacher friend, but the man, who deals in prostitution and drugs, refuses to harbor Sweetback, even though he admires him for saving Mu-Mu. Stating that Mu-Mu is “laying down the real religion,” the preacher promises to say a “black Ave Maria” for Sweetback. That night, Sweetback asks another friend for money, and while the friend lies, telling him that he is broke, he does offer him a ride out of town. On the way, they spot Mu-Mu and pick him up. After being dropped outside Los Angeles, Sweetback and Mu-Mu walk through the night until finally falling asleep in an abandoned building. They are awakened by a gang of white motorcyclists who demand that they pay for trespassing on their turf and take them to the gang’s leader, “the Pres,” who reveals herself to be a tall, redheaded woman named Big Sadie. When asked what weapon he wants to use in a duel with Sadie, Sweetback says sex, and soon Sadie and Sweetback are having sex while surrounded by her cheering followers. Sweetback pleasures and outlasts Sadie, who is deserted by her gang after her defeat. A couple of the bikers take Sweetback and Mu-Mu to an old cabin, where they pass the time playing pool. Unaware that they have been betrayed by the bikers, the two are surprised when a pair of policemen burst in, but initially surrender quietly. Soon they fight back, however, and during the struggle, one policeman shoots Mu-Mu twice, wounding him. Sweetback kills the policemen, and as he is carrying the disabled Mu-Mu, a black biker appears and tells them that he was asked by Sadie to rescue Sweetback. Telling the biker that Mu-Mu is “our future,” Sweetback instructs the biker to save the young man, then takes off on foot again. Enraged, the commissioner yells at the detectives to find Sweetback and even tells two black officers that they would be a “real credit” to their people if they apprehended the fugitive. After a black man is killed, Beetle is brought in to identify the body, which the police believe is that of Sweetback. Beetle smiles upon seeing that the dead man is not Sweetback, while on the streets, swarms of policemen question people. No one will admit to knowing Sweetback, who paid a transient to switch clothes with him. When the man wearing Sweetback's clothes is caught, he informs the frustrated policemen that he was paid by Sweetback to lead them astray. Sweetback makes his way toward the Mexican border, although he has been wounded after being shot by a policeman with a rifle. Exhausted and sunburned, Sweetback eludes police searching an outdoor concert attended by hippies by hiding his face while having sex with a woman. Later, a sheriff on a country road spots Sweetback and returns to headquarters to get a dog handler and several bloodhounds. As night draws in and Sweetback gets closer to the border, the frustrated sheriff forces the handler to set the dogs loose so that they can run down the fugitive. As they wait, hearing ferocious noises in the distance, the two men laugh about saving the taxpayers some money. In the morning, however, several of the dead dogs float in the river separating Baja California and Mexico, into which Sweetback has crossed safely. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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