A landmark in Black filmmaking in the U.S., this angry, extravagant, loud, belligerent movie reaches a high pitch early on and stays there. It's written, directed, photographed, scored by, and stars Melvin Van Peebles, who'd always wanted to be a filmmaker, went to France to do a
conventional film (STORY OF A THREE DAY PASS), came back to try his hand in Hollywood (WATERMELON MAN), and finally wound up here, an independent in full control of his product.
The narrative is linear and relatively unimaginative. Sweetback (Van Peebles), who's working in a brothel when the film begins, is finally moved to action, stomps a couple of cops unconscious, then begins running. He runs for the rest of the film, finally escaping to Mexico.
SWEET SWEETBACK is not an easy film to admire: it's violent, even sadistic, obscene, frenzied, painful. Some critics condemned it for trading on a classic Black stereotype, the "buck." On the surface, the film has all the extreme elements of the most cynical "Blaxploitation" movies, but Van
Peebles actually uses these elements in order to comment upon them. The pain with which he washes the screen is meant to be transmuted into anger by audiences, and then into political action. Obviously, this didn't happen, and probably never could. But the film succeeds as a cri de coeur, an
announcement that Black militancy has reached your neighborhood theater and that things will never be the same.
SWEET SWEETBACK caused considerable controversy among Black commentators and critics, but it remains one of very few Black films from the 1970s to spring entirely from a Black artistic sensibility. Although this independent release didn't appear on Variety charts, it grossed more than $10 million,
thus becoming one of the most financially rewarding independent productions of all time. leave a comment