MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys on how the Obama cabinet is shaping up and what happened with the Prop 8. Are black folks homophobic? That's in just a few minutes. But first today, we talk to a man who many believe changed the image of black men in film, for better or worse. Melvin Van Peebles' breakout hit, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," bucked the Hollywood status quo when it was released in 1971. Then Peebles wrote, directed, produced, scored and starred in the film.
And despite an X rating for adult content, many amateurs in the cast and crew, and a controversial protagonist, the film not only attracted huge audiences but remains one of the most profitable independent films ever and, according to Variety, one of the top-grossing films ever. Van Peebles has gone on to write, direct, compose and act in many other projects, and he is being honored next month with a Gotham Award Tribute, saluting him as the godfather of independent films. Melvin Van Peebles spends much time overseas, but he's in New York right now, and he stopped by our New York bureau. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES (Filmmaker, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," "Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha"): I'm having a great time.
MARTIN: Well, I'm happy to hear that. But before we get into the meat of your career, I just wanted to ask you if you followed the presidential campaign and where you were and what you were doing when you learned that Barack Obama would be the next president of the U.S. And I wondered if you ever thought you'd see this in your lifetime?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: OK. Well, there are about 12 questions in there, and I don't mind because what happened was Mario, my son, my oldest son, and I were calling all around the United States for Obama, talking on the telephone, to the radio station. And frankly, if somebody had told me this was going to happen - not that it shouldn't happen; it should happen - but it could happen, I'd say, what are you smoking? Come on. I mean, it's beyond belief. Will I ever see it in my lifetime? That's a loaded question which I have to explain because I have no intention of dying, and so I expect for my lifetime, but not so early in my lifetime did I ever expect it.
And the night, I was at a party on Central Park West with some other friends of mine who had been very pro-Obama. And even after he had won, I just couldn't register the thing, even though all of the indications were that he was going to win. And I came out of the apartment, I'm walking down, I see a cab, and I hailed the cab and the guy picks me up. He was from Bangladesh. And he wouldn't take money when I got home. He said, no, no, no. This is a happy day. But at that point, when the cab driver refuses to take the money, that sort of kicked in. I said, OK, OK. Maybe it's true. I'll go sleep on it. I know tomorrow morning it would all have been a dream. I think it's terrific. Not only is it terrific, I think he's very, very capable. I have a lot of hope for him.
MARTIN: Tell the truth. Did you cry?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: No. I only cry...
MARTIN: Not a big crier.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: The last time I cried - well, hey, it's been a long time.
MARTIN: Let's switch gears and talk about you and your career. I was reading that your experience with your first film was so bad that it made you determined to have control over the next film you did. Is that true? And what happened?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: No, not at all. It's not true.
MARTIN: That made you realize you had to be the one that - no, not true?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, first, it's not true. They're probably referring to "Watermelon Man," which was not my first film. It was my second feature, and I had made maybe 30 short films before that. I came to the States as the French delegate to the San Francisco Film Festival. And when that film did extremely well at the San Francisco Film Festival, I then had offers from Hollywood. But I felt that if Hollywood had me, they would have their Negro token and then they wouldn't have to hire anybody else. And so, the search was on for the great black hope.
MARTIN: OK. So, there was "Watermelon Man." And then, let's talk about "Sweetback." One of the reasons that "Sweetback" was celebrated at the time, and frankly to this day, is that it presents a picture of a man who is not afraid, who confronts authorities and who survives. I mean, many who were surprised that the protagonist actually survives.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: No, I disagree. I disagree.
MARTIN: OK. Go ahead. Let me hear what you have to say. I wanted to play a clip.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Who's not afraid? It had nothing to do with afraid or not. When somebody's on, people always say no, how did you know you could beat that guy up? I didn't know I could beat him up. I just know I wasn't going to take it. There's a major difference. There's a major difference. It's afterwards that we say, this could have happened or that would have happened. No, you don't know. And if you do know, then there's nothing courageous about it. All I knew is I wasn't going to take it anymore, period. I didn't know I wasn't going to get away with it.
MARTIN: For those who don't remember or who haven't yet seen it, "Sweetback" is a man who's been taken in by the proprietor of a house of prostitution. He was raised there. He still works there, and then he gets arrested by the police under a ruse. The police then also picked up this young black activist, and they start to beat him. And Sweetback decides that he can't take any more, and he then beats the officers into unconsciousness to defend this young kid and then, of course, he has to go on the run. And I just want to play a short clip to set the table and then we can talk about it. Here it is.
(Soundbite of movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song")
Unidentified Man: (As Preacher)What are you doing here, Sweetback? They're looking for you.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: (As Sweetback) I don't want you to cover for me. I'm going upstairs then to the farm.
Unidentified Man: (As Preacher) To the farm? You can't hide there. They know all about the farm. Not only yesterday, the unwed mothers, the girls I get you from upstairs, the man knows about everything.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: (As Sweetback) Ain't it strange when we die, our folks like to rejoice. But when it comes to the living, that's it. The life I'm laying down for them people inside, it ain't dangerous. I'm just selling them a little bit of happiness, you know, from the happy land. We all are going to die. So, all I want them to have is some peace.
MARTIN: I just want to mention that this is Sweetback, and he is talking to the preacher. Most of the lines are the preacher's lines. I've always wanted to ask you this, why does Sweetback have so few lines?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, there are a number of things. First, I thought it would be brilliant to have the other people put the lines in their head, and everybody has in a little different way. In fact, he only had said six lines in the entire film. Also, when I'm directing and moving the camera, I didn't have to remember a lot. That helped a lot, too, you know what I mean?
MARTIN: I want to talk about that - a little bit more about that. But before I do, if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking with film legend Melvin Van Peebles about his career, his latest award, his latest work and his thoughts on America's first black president. One of the things that many people, including many African-Americans, don't like about the film and have never liked about the film is its depiction of sexuality of Sweetback. A lot of these sex scenes, he uses sex to get things. He has very little affect when he's having sex. It's like these performances, and what's very disturbing to a lot of people is that you used your son, Mario. In one of the opening sequences he's filmed, he's playing the younger you, OK, having been raised in this house of prostitution. He's filmed having sex with an adult woman. I think he was 14 at the time. And many people think, what are you trying to say here?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Look, the business of the business is I got to go up against all these other films, all these other things that's amusing. You got to use whatever weapon. Sweetback, that happened to be his weapon. Why I chose that weapon for him is because it was cinematic. It made sense when he didn't have much of a crew, et cetera, et cetera.
MARTIN: You were using what you had. But you know that the whole thing about the whole black buck, the oversexed black buck is a stereotype that's been used against black people.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: That's exactly right. Wonderful. Absolutely. And I took every myth purposely and stood it on its head and say, yeah, so what? Yeah, so what? Yeah, so what?
MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, about using your son in that sex scene? A 14-year-old boy being photographed...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: But he wasn't 14. He wasn't even 12, I don't think.
MARTIN: He wasn't even 12. Oh, I thought he was 14 - well, having sex with an adult woman.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Business is business. What the heck? Didn't seem to harm or hurt him a bit.
MARTIN: Would he agree?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I wouldn't ask him. Hey, I'm the parent.
MARTIN: What about his other parent. What about his mother? Where was she during this?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Hey, hey, I didn't ask her. I'm not running a democracy here. I'm running a fascist state. Do what I say. I felt that I was ready to make this sacrifice or do the things or anything else to do. I thought in the long run, this would someday - and it all came out right. Besides that, I had the chutzpah to think, OK, son, one day this may be able to open doors, not the sex scene, the idea that the film became a gross(ph). Everybody grumbles. Everybody grumbles, but they all admit the money and Swindley admitted the money. Take "Shaft," for example. "Shaft" was originally a white movie.
MARTIN: That's why it's an ethical question, though, to use a child to make money. That's why it's an ethical question. It's a different question for an adult.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: No, no, no, no. There was nothing unethical about it. It's going to - it's going to happen. Hey, we are trying to survive. When I was a kid from 10 years old I worked every day for my dad, huh? Never played basketball. I never played tennis, never did. We worked so that we could eat. OK? And I guess you could've called say, what, that's not ethical, that's work, et cetera, et cetera. Nah, you've got to do what you've got to do.
MARTIN: Over the years, what has this film meant to you and has that changed over time?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Independent films did not exist before. There were three or four little things that they made film go bloop, bloop, bloop with the dots and it's over. Nobody made money. I made a film that made money. That changed everything. You can't have it both ways. You say, well, what is that? You wanted one or not? You can't say one, but ah, I wanted to win this way? I wanted to win the battle, but you can't win a war with white gloves or not clean white gloves on. You want to fight or you don't want to fight? Oh, you want to accept it, then accept it. Then shut up and go home. But do not say, oh, Mr. Van Peebles, but this, but that, but the other, but this, but blah. Hey, duh. Look, I won. I proved it.
MARTIN: You're saying the film had to succeed.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah.
MARTIN: Tell me about your latest film.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, it's a kid who leaves home. He has this urge to get out and to see the world, with a zillion adventures out of "Oliver Twist," the "Don Quixote," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It's a lot of fun. I enjoy it.
MARTIN: This award that you're getting, it's not the only one - it's one of many, but it's the - I guess by your peers I would say it's independent filmmakers acknowledging one of their own. Is this important to you? Do you care?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Oh, I'm very happy about any award. This makes it possible for the other people to come along and exist. That's what it's all about.
MARTIN: Now, I take your point. You told me earlier, you are not ever going to die, but I did want to ask you, how do you want to be remembered?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: After I've won the festival that's in San Francisco, I didn't have a job or anything. It wasn't as if when they gave me offers, I refused, I had something else to do. And I was living on the park bench in New York and down in the village, and the first night I'm sitting there wearing all the news that's fit to print, because newspapers makes a great insulation; so, you get baggy clothes, you put your newspaper inside your clothes, you got a nice insulation. So, I'm sitting there and dozing off, and I hear this screaming or yelling and I go around the corner to see what this yelling is about and I didn't know - it was just a park bench to me - but it turns out that the park bench is not far from the women's house of detention.
And there, I saw a line of people under this light, lined up politely. And each one would come and take a turn and yell up to their loved one in the house of detention. Now, the women couldn't yell back, but they could make a sound. Is that your light, sugar? Make me some kind of sign so I'd know it's you. I was so moved, I said that was so interesting, that was one of the beginnings of when I went to Broadway - one of my Broadway shows, "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death." I don't know, if this gives voice to the voiceless, wow, that's good enough for me.
MARTIN: Melvin Van Peebles is an actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, composer. His latest film is called "Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York, where he is about to receive the annual Gotham Tribute Award. Melvin Van Peebles, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Thank you very, very much for having me.