Melvin Van Peebles was a filmmaker and auteur who pioneered the “blaxsploitation” genre of African American action films in the 1970s.
The American filmmaker who wrote, directed, and starred in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), a groundbreaking film that spearheaded the rush of African American action films known as “blaxploitation” in the 1970s. He also served as the film's composer and editor.
The son of a black Chicago tailor, Melvin attended West Virginia State College, then earned a Bachelor's (BA) at Ohio Wesleyan University (B.A., 1953). Van Peebles traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico, and the United States, working a variety of jobs that included painter (while making a handful of amateur films), postal worker, and a San Francisco cable-car grip, along with a three-year stint in the United States Air Force as a navigator/bombardier. While in Mexico, he attended graduate school in Holland and picked up spare change (and a few overnight jail terms) as an unlicensed street entertainer in Paris.
While still a relatively young man living in Paris, he wrote several English-language novels including La Permission (the story of a star-crossed interracial romance). On the strength of his book, Van Peebles became eligible for admission to the French Cinema Center as a director. Unexpectedly receiving a grant of $70,000, he converted La Permission into his first feature film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). On the strength of this film, Van Peebles was courted by several Hollywood studios, who had no idea he was African American and assumed he was a French auteur.
While few studios in 1968 were willing to take a chance on a black director, Columbia Pictures gave Van Peebles carte blanche to direct a satirical comedy-fantasy on the topic of black-white stereotyping, Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy about racial bigotry. He kept the costs low on this project so that he could invest his salary into a privately financed labor of love, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1970).
Crude and offensive by “establishment” standards, this tale of a black fugitive's one-man vendetta against white authority proved to be an enormous success with African American audiences (it was one of the top box-office earners that year). This film is credited with opening the doors that led to the explosive creation of 1970s blaxploitation films. It also proved that Hollywood had itself a genuine “renaissance man” in Van Peebles; he not only produced, directed, wrote and starred in Sweet Sweetback, but also edited and scored the film.
Having briefly satiated his filmmaking aspirations, Van Peebles turned to Broadway, writing and scoring the 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. His next theatrical project was 1972's Don't Play Us Cheap, which won first prize at the Belgian Film Festival when a hastily produced movie version was offered in competition.
Since that time, Van Peebles has developed a TV-movie pilot, Just an Old Sweet Song (1977), and has written and acted in a number of movie and TV projects, frequently in collaboration with his actor/director son Mario Van Peebles. As of this writing, Melvin Van Peebles’ only movie directorial effort of the past two decades has been the hit-and-miss fantasy Identity Crisis (1990).
He then continued to write, act, compose, and direct for films and television. Later films in which he appeared on include The Hebrew Hammer (2003) and BlacKout (2007). He also wrote the screenplays for Badasssss! (2003) and Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha (2008), the latter of which he also directed. In addition to his film career, Van Peebles became involved in commodities trading in the 1980s and was the first African American to hold a seat on the American Stock Exchange.
Melvin Van Peebles is also considered one of the forerunners of rap music. He wrote the musical scores for a number of his films (i.e. The Story of a Three Day Pass, Sweet Sweetback's and The Watermelon Man) and has released several albums that combine rap with jazz and funk.
August 21, 1932
- Member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) since 2016.
- Is portrayed by his son Mario Van Peebles in Baadasssss! (2003).
- Has been nominated for three Tony Awards: in 1972, as Best Book (Musical) and Best Score, as both Composer and Lyricist, for “Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death;” and in 1973, as Best Book (Musical) for “Don't Play Us Cheap.”
- Is the subject of How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005).