Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a 1971 Melvin Van Peebles It tells the picaresque story of a deprived African American man on his flight from the white authority. Van Peebles began to develop the film after being offered a three-picture contract for Columbia Pictures. No studio would finance the film, so Van Peebles funded the film himself, shooting it independently over a period of 19 days, performing all of his own stunts and appearing in several sex scenes. He received a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the project. According to Variety, it demonstrated to Hollywood that films which portrayed “militant” blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, although some do not consider this example of Van Peebles’ work to be an exploitation film.
56 mins, Colour Digital Video, Sound
Isaac Julien’s documentary examines the short-lived, but deeply influential, flourishing of commercial Black independent filmmaking in the early 1970s which became known as “blaxploitation”.
Filled with fragments and contributions from luminaries of the time, including actors Pam Grier and Fred Williamson, directors Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks Jr., contemporary fans Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, and critics like bell hooks, the documentary sets the films of the period in their context and asks a series of questions. Did Seventies hits such as Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAssss Song and Shaft provide “revolutionary” or retrograde images of American blacks? Why was it that “blaxploitation” films, having helped save a declining Hollywood, then became marginalised? Julien follows the genre from the very start up till Tarantino’s homage Jackie Brown.
Baltimore is rich in urban imagery and, like Julien’s earlier pieces Vagabondia and Three, uses museums as a key location and theme.
Inspired by blaxploitation movies while he was filming his documentary Baadasssss Cinema, Julien appropriates the styles, gestures, language and iconography of the genre to create a work that defies easy categorization. Starring veteran black actor and director Melvin Van Peebles, Baltimore was designed in part as homage to Van Peebles’ movies. It unites three Baltimore institutions – the Walters Art Museum, the Contemporary Museum and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum – with blaxploitation cinema, the tough talking, hard-living symbol of black empowerment that Van Peebles helped usher in with his 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Baltimore is ironic and funky, nostalgic and futuristic, rough and fine. It is characterized by oscillation and an insistent formal play with linear perspective which also pays homage to Piero della Francesca and more particularly, a painting of unknown authorship, c.1500 known as “View of an Ideal City” which features in the collection of the Walters Art Museum.