Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, And More Mourn The Passing Of Director Melvin Van Peebles, ‘The Godfather Of Black Cinema’

Melvin Van Peebles was the second Black filmmaker ever hired to direct a movie by a major film studio. Called by some the “Godfather of Black Cinema,” he was also a pioneer of independent film, who broke free of the very studio system he’d infiltrated so he could do what he wanted. He wrote books, recorded albums, even staged a Tony-nominated Broadway musical. And on Wednesday, he passed on at the age of 89, having led a long, fruitful, and game-changing life on his own terms.

Like James Baldwin, Van Peebles was an African-American who went to Paris, hoping to find the success that eluded him at home. After writing a string of novels, he got the chance to turn one of them, La Permission, into his feature directorial debut. The Story of a Three-Day Pass, released in 1967, Hollywood flew him out. The story is they were expecting the next (white) French auteur. They were shocked when off the plane stepped a Black American.

Though the first major studio movie directed by an African-American was Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, in 1969, Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man, from 1970, was the second. A savage satire, it concerned a white bigot who awakens one day to find he’s Black. Columbia Pictures wanted him to cast a white actor, put him in Blackface, and have a happy ending, in which he magically switched back. Van Peebles insisted on putting Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface, if only for the opening stretch, and having him instead evolve into a passionate Black nationalist.

Van Peebles was quickly disillusioned with Hollywood. So he sank his own money into his next film: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an borderline avant-garde exploitation movie about a wrongly accused Black man, played by himself, fleeing the racist police who framed him. “Rated X by an all-white jury,” read the promos, designed by Van Peebles himself, and it became a runaway hit, in turn inspiring the Blaxploitation genre.

Soon Broadway beckoned, as well as the record industry. Throughout he gave people what he wanted to give them, not what they wanted. That often meant that his work was ignored during release, only to inspire others later. By the ‘80s, he even branched out into another industry: He became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange, all while still pursuing theater and film.

His son Mario followed in his footsteps, becoming both an actor and a director, including New Jack City and Baadasssss!, in which he played his father as he made Sweet Sweetback.

“Somebody once asked me, ‘Melvin, how’d you get to the top?’”, he once said. “It was simple. Nobody would let me in at the bottom.” His passing — mere days before the release of a lavish box set by the Criterion Collection, arriving September 28 — was met with widespread mourning by the filmmakers let in the door he helped kick down.

And by others.