Today on the final day of black history month, we close out our retrospective of black cinema. Ending on a high note, we turn our attention behind the camera. In focus, today is one of the founding fathers of modern-day black cinema, Melvin Van Pebbles. On August 21, 1932, Melvin Van Peebles was born in, Chicago, Illinois. Van Pebbles would grow up to be a director, actor, artist, screenwriter, producer, novelist, composer, and badass.
Van Peebles graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B.A. in English Literature at twenty. Weeks after graduation, Van Peebles served three years in the U.S. Air Force. After Van Peebles would find himself employed as a street car gripman in San Francisco, CA, an experience he would turn into his first novel, The big heart, was published in 1957.
With three short films under his belt, Van Pebbles would find himself unable to find work in Hollywood in any creative capacity. He was offered a job as an elevator operator instead. Lack of creative outlet would prompt a move to Holland for Van Pebbles to study astronomy. It would be a combination of this move and a chance meeting with Henri Langlois that lead to his films making their rounds at the Cinémathèque Française. In 1968, Van Peebles directed and wrote "A Three-Day Pass" while in France. In 1970, he would find himself directing his first Hollywood film, "The Watermelon Man."
However, it would be the 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," a movie starring, directed, financed, scored, and edited by Van Pebbles, that would cause waves and open up a new era of black cinema. Controversial and courageous, the film would go on to make $15,000,000 and black history. Embraced some while panned by others the film and Van Pebbles' legacy in Black cinema remains undeniable. At the tender age of 88, and with over 19 films under his belt, Van Peebles still has shown no sign of stopping.
I’m recommending his documentary, 1998 "Classified X," a walkthrough of black history narrated by Melvin Van Peebles himself. It outlines the at times painful, complicated, and fascinating journey through black cinema in America.
Pull up a chair, pour a glass of your favorite drink, and enjoy an evening with a legend.
Classified X can we viewed on YouTube.