Photo credits: Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images
This past week, the lone trailblazing figure and originator of black independent cinema passed away in New York City, New York.
Melvin Van Peebles (pictured) was a Black American actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and composer. He worked as an active filmmaker into the 2000s. His feature film debut, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), was based on his own French-language novel La Permission and was shot in France, as it was difficult for a black American director to get work at the time.
The film won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival which gained him the interest of Hollywood studios, leading to his American feature debut Watermelon Man, in 1970. Eschewing further overtures from Hollywood, he used the successes he had so far to bankroll his work as an independent filmmaker.
In 1971, he released his best-known work, creating and starring in the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, considered one of the earliest and best-regarded examples of the blaxploitation genre. He followed this up with the musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap, based on his own stage play.
He continued to make films, write novels and stage plays in English and in French through the next several decades. His final films include the French-language film Le Conte du ventre plein (2000) and the absurdist film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008).
His son, filmmaker and actor Mario Van Peebles, appeared in several of his works and portrayed him in the 2003 biographical film Baadasssss!. Melvin Van Peebles was born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1954, Melvin graduated with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University.
Thirteen days later, he joined the U.S. Air Force, serving for three and a half years. Melvin Van Peebles went on to pursue what would be known as a legendary film career, which spanned over six decades.
Melvin Van Peebles married Maria Marx. They lived in Mexico for a period in the late 1950s, where he painted portraits. Their son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, was born while they resided in Mexico. The family subsequently returned to the United States.
Van Peebles died on September 21, 2021, at his home in Manhattan. New York at age 89. He is survived by his sons (Mario and Max) and his daughter Marguerite Van Peebles.