Melvin Van Peebles, an actor and director who pioneered Black cinema in the 1970s with films such as Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, has passed away. He was 89.
Van Peebles died at his home on Tuesday (September 21). His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films released a statement confirming his passing.
“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year.”
Considered by many to be the godfather of Black cinema, Van Peebles’s work created a link between himself and young Black directors of the future, such as Spike Lee and John Singleton. A native of Chicago, he was a renaissance man, dabbling as a novelist, a songwriter, musician, painter and theater impresario.
His two most important films, 1970’s Watermelon Man and 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, made plays on race unseen in Hollywood at the time. Watermelon Man focused on a bigoted white salesman who goes to the bathroom one night and discovers he’s Black. With Sweet Sweetback, Van Peebles was gifted a $50,000 loan by Bill Cosby to write, direct, produce, score and edit the outlaw film. He starred as the titular character, a ladies man with heroic lovemaking abilities who battled the white establishment in Los Angeles – the kickstart to the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s.
Featuring songs by Earth, Wind and Fire, the film opened in two cities, Atlanta and Detroit. However, word of mouth powered the film to open in cities across the country, eventually earning over $10 million at the box office. The success of Sweetback prompted the creators of Shaft to change the ethnicity of John Shaft from white to Black, according to Van Peebles.
Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son, directed the 1995 film Panther and starred as his father in the 2003 film Baadasssss. Together, the two starred in the 1993 western Posse, which Melvin Van Peebles directed. Van Peebles also starred in films such as Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Hebrew Hammer (2003) and Peeples (2013).