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Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan
Melvin Van Peebles
After saving a Black Panther from some racist cops, a black male prostitute goes on the run from "the man" with the help of the ghetto community and others.
Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 97 min.
Price: $124.95
Release Date: 9/28/2021
Available as Part of “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” Collection

Disc One:
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles
• Introduction from Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles
• “Mario Van Peebles and Elvis Mitchell” Conversation
• 1971 Segment from Detroit Tubeworks
• 2021 “Scholars Panel”
• 1971 Black Journal Episode
• Trailer
Disc Two:
Baadassss! Feature Film
• Audio Commentary with Filmmakers Mario Van Peebles and Melvin Van Peebles
• “The Story of Baadassss!” Documentary
• “The Real Deal” Interview
• “Visual History” Interview
• Booklet


-LG OLED65C6P 65-Inch 4K Ultra HD Smart OLED TV
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-Sony UBP-X800 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player
-Chane A2.4 Speakers
-SVS SB12-NSD 12" 400-watt Sealed Box Subwoofer


Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1971)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 30, 2021)

Independent cinema enjoyed an explosion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as filmmakers became more daring and willing to take on formerly taboo topics. In part, this led to the existence movies aimed at the Black audience that offered grittier tales more true to their own experiences.

Written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song offers a seminal entry in this genre. It introduces us to Sweetback (Peebles), a man who grew up in a brothel, where he now works as a performer in a sex show.

When two white cops question the establishment’s owner Beetle (Simon Chuckster) about a murder, all involved concoct a plan to appease locals who crave justice. The police will arrest an innocent Sweetback but soon release him due to an absence of evidence.

The officers enact this scheme but matters go awry along the way and Sweetback assaults the cops when they beat Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), a Black Panther they apprehended. This sends Sweetback on the lam, as he attempts to deal with his situation.

As noted earlier, Song offers an important film in terms of cinematic influence. It essentially created the “Blaxploitation” genre, and it allowed audiences to potentially see a more authentic depiction of Black life than what Hollywood offered.

Well, it brought a certain kind of “Black life”, at least, and one could argue that the trends influenced by Song just led to other problems. Seriously, does an emotionally stunted Black prostitute really act as a representative of typical Black life?

In any case, Van Peebles’ creation demonstrated that movies made by Black filmmakers for Black audiences could sell plenty of tickets. That remains the most significant aspect of its influence, as it changed that particular game and opened doors for future filmmakers.

None of this makes Song an actual good movie, however. Essentially 97 minutes of random violence and sex, the film lacks much to make it compelling.

Song seems depressingly topical, as the topic of the abuse suffered by Blacks at the hands of various authorities remains current. I’d love to say that aspect of the movie feels dated, but that doesn’t become true.

Otherwise, Song gives us a virtually unwatchable mess that exists mainly to advance its political agenda. At the start, text tells us that “this film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”, and in theory, a movie that gives us a deep portrayal of these social issues would work.

Unfortunately, Song barely tries to provide a plot. We see Sweetback run, get into occasional brawls, and bone a lot of women.

The last domain turns comical at times, as the movie’s schemes to get Sweetback involved with women seem absurd, to say the least. The film actually puts Sweetback into a “duel” with a biker gang where he wins by satisfying his female opponent.

Little of the movie makes a lick of sense. Sweetback runs and runs – except for aforementioned dalliances – but it never seems clear where he intends to go or how he plans to stay free.

Maybe all of this intends to offer allegory about the hopelessness the character experiences in a system pitted against him. Perhaps, but it all comes across as little more than incoherent filmmaking.

Of course, it doesn’t take much to see Sweetback’s journey as a callback to the perils encountered by slaves who attempted to flee. The film crams in this theme awkwardly and doesn’t use it in a resonant manner, as these themes feel gratuitous.

All of this adds us to a disjointed 97 minutes of crazed visuals and little obvious narrative purpose. As much as I recognize the project’s importance in cinematic history, Song makes for a mess of a movie.

Footnote: how in the heck did this movie get away with full-frontal nudity from a 13-year-old boy – and then a simulated (I hope) sex act that involves the kid?

The Disc Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C-/ Bonus A

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though some appealing elements arose, much of the image seemed problematic.

Unquestionably, the source dictated that this would happen. Shot on a very low budget with “guerilla” tactics, much of the photography felt virtually improvised, and niceties such as appropriate lighting for night shots didn’t occur.

As such, sharpness varied a lot. When the movie opted for well-lit, accurately-composed elements, it brought nice delineation.

However, given the “on the fly” impression found during much of the film, I found lots of fuzzy, indistinct shots. I couldn’t fault the transfer for these, though, as they stemmed from the source.

In a more complicated domain, quite a few print flaws materialized. I saw various examples of specks and marks through the film, along with scratches, lines and other blemishes.

Unlike the softness, these didn’t seem to be inevitable, and they created more than a few distractions. Though many scenes passed without defects, others came packed with them.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and I saw no edge haloes. With tons of grain, I sure didn’t suspect any noise reduction.

Colors varied, with many of them reproduced in a runny, messy way. As with sharpness, occasional elements looked good, but the iffy photography left the hues as less than optimal.

Blacks tended to feel mushy and heavy, while shadows came across as thick and dense. Given the movie’s origins, its unattractive visuals didn’t shock me.

In the same vein, the movie’s PCM monaural soundtrack revealed the film’s age and origins. We got a lot of looped speech, and the lines rarely sounded especially natural. Though the dialogue remained intelligible, it usually seemed flat and dull, with some edginess as well.

Music seemed thin and tinny, while effects fell into the same range and also lacked range or impact. Nothing about the soundtrack’s issues surprised me, but it was still a mediocre mix at best.

As we head to extras, we open with an audio commentary from writer/director Melvin Van Peebles. Recorded in 1997, he offers a running, screen-specific look at the project’s origins, cast and crew, photography, editing and visual design, music, aspects of his life/career, shooting on a shoestring budget, dealing with Hollywood and the MPAA, and connected domains.

Like the film itself, Van Peebles’ commentary tends to go all over the place. Nonetheless, during the film’s first half, he manages to provide reasonably good insights.

Unfortunately, as the track progresses, Van Peebles digresses more into self-praise. This makes the discussion a bit tedious, so while we learn a decent amount about the production, parts of it get tiresome.

Also from 1997, we get an Introduction from Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles. In this two-minute, 35-second chat, he discusses his goals for the film. It becomes a decent opening.

Recorded in 2021, we get a Conversation with Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles and Critic Elvis Mitchell. During this 23-minute, 24-second chat, they discuss the life/career of Melvin Van Peebles along with Melvin’s impact on/reflections of the Black community. These offer a good series of insights.

From 1971, a segment of Detroit Tubeworks spans 13 minutes, three seconds and provides a view of Melvin as he attempted to sell the movie. We don’t learn anything much that we don’t find elsewhere, but it’s fun to see Melvin at this point in his life.

Another piece circa 1971, Black Journal goes for 23 minutes, 37 seconds and involves Melvin Van Peebles along with journalists Clayton Riley, Francis Ward and A. Peter Bailey.

Though I thought this would offer a panel among these four, instead it brings separate comments edited together. Again it proves interesting to see Melvin in 1971, and I also appreciate the ability to hear other reactions to Song during the era of its release, especially since not all praise it.

In addition to the film’s trailer, Disc One ends with a 2021 Scholars Panel. It lasts 25 minutes, 34 seconds and features film scholars Gerald R. Butters Jr., Amy Abugo Ongiri and Novotny Lawrence.

They discuss aspects of the movie’s release, its historical significance and its legacy. While we hear some of this info elsewhere, the panel offers a good modern-day POV about the film.

On Disc Two, the main attraction comes from Baadasssss!, a 2003 feature about the production of Song. Directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, it runs one hour, 49 minutes, one second.

Here we find a semi-fictionalized view of the creation of Song, with Mario as his dad Melvin. Mario can’t quite choose a tone, so it offers an awkward mix of comedy, documentary-style “fly on the wall” and melodrama.

Even with those inconsistencies, though, Baadasssss! offers a pretty entertaining take on the flick. Toss in a good cast and this turns into an erratic but likable view of the Song production.

We can watch Baadassss! with or without commentary from Mario and Melvin Van Peebles. They bring a running, screen-specific look at facts and liberties, aspects of the Sweetback production, cast and performances, locations and sets, music, and related areas.

The best parts of the commentary focus on the interpersonal relationship between father and son, though those also create some of the track’s more disappointing moments, mainly because they don’t dig as deep as desired. Baadasssss! makes Melvin look like a fairly lousy father, so reflections on the Melvin/Mario relationship would seem valuable.

And we do find some of these, but they don’t appear frequently, and they don’t present much depth. The commentary does manage some insights, but it stays too superficial to really work.

The Story of Baadasssss! fills 21 minutes, 51 seconds with notes from Mario Van Peebles, Bill Cosby, filmmakers John Singleton, Bill Cannon and Michael Mann, documentarian Sandra Ruch, Song cameraman Jose Garcia, musician Maurice White, Song assistant Priscilla Watts, composer Tyler Bates, cinematographer Robert Primes, production designer Alan Muraoka, and actors Ossie Davis, Terry Crews, Bert Scales, Rainn Wilson, Joy Bryant, Paul Rodriguez, Penny Bae Bridges, Mandela Van Peebles, and Khleo Thomas.

“Story” covers the social context of Song’s era and the status of Black cinema at the time, aspects of Song’s production, release and legacy, and the creation of Baadassss! as well.

Inevitably, we hear a fair amount of this material elsewhere. Still, “Story” brings a pretty decent overview.

From 2002, The Real Deal gives us a 21-minute, 55-second interview with Melvin Van Peebles. Shot as Melvin wanders around Paris, he discusses aspects of his life and career.

Given all the programs already seen, we find more than a little repetition from elsewhere. Add the feature’s self-consciously “artsy”/pretentious presentation and this becomes a bit of a chore to watch.

Lastly, we find a Visual History with Melvin Van Peebles. This gives us a 44-minute, 27-second interview from 2004 in which Melvin and Mario talk about Melvin’s career. Melvin goes into filmmaking philosophies in a fairly enjoyable manner.

The package concludes with a booklet that mixes art, photos, credits and essays from film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie and Lisa B. Thompson. It adds value to the set.

50 years after its release, I can recognize Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song as an important part of cinema history. Unfortunately, as a film, it seems practically unwatchable and more likely to induce headaches than entertainment. The Blu-ray comes with inconsistent picture and audio as well as a long roster of bonus materials. Given its significance, I’m glad I saw Song, but I can’t imagine I’d ever want to watch this mess again.

Note that this Blu-ray from Song comes as part of a four-movie “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” set. It also features 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass, 1970’s Watermelon Man and 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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