Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

DVD Cover (Sony Home Entertainment)
Melvin Van Peebles Melvin Van Peebles
Simon Chuckster Simon Chuckster
Melvin Van Peebles Melvin Van Peebles
Hubert Scales Hubert Scales
John Dullaghan John Dullaghan
Wesley Gale Wesley Gale

5.5 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Genres: Action, Action Thriller, Blaxploitation, Psychological Drama, Urban Drama
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Review by Chad
Added: February 06, 2011
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a hard film to review. On the one hand, it was an extremely important film in the world of black cinema, a film which gave rise to the entire blaxploitation genre, and which in turn destroyed the notion that black actors could only handle bit parts and comedic relief. It was also the first movie to openly feature black characters damning "the man" and refusing to give in to the crooked ways of those in power, and this paved the way for countless films that weren't afraid to expose the way things really can be. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is an important film in a lot of ways, but it is mainly important because it was the first to do these things. Melvin Van Peebles went out on a limb with this film and his efforts will not be forgotten in the history of cinema, but as for the actual movie itself... well, it just isn't very good.

The storyline begins with a fourteen-year-old boy screwing a prostitute, and yes, this hard-"R" sex scene is as shocking as it sounds. This kid grows up to be Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles), a sex performer living amongst the prostitutes and players of the ghetto. He works under a man named Beetle (Simon Chuckster) who has ties to the cops, and this leads to the police asking Beetle if they can take one of his boys in for the night. They don't want to arrest anybody, they just want to look like they're doing their jobs... and by hauling a black man into the station in cuffs, the public will believe that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. Sweetback will be released the next day and everyone will be happy, right?

Well, the police eventually arrest another black man (Hubert Scales) while en route to the station with Sweetback in tow, and being the white devils that they are, they proceed to beat the black man down. Sweetback watches this play out, and eventually, he has had enough: he wraps the cuff around his knuckles and beats the pigs to death with it before letting the beaten man escape. Naturally, Sweetback is now public enemy number one amongst the authorities, and it's a race against time as he attempts to make it to freedom in Mexico.

There are three key problems with the film. First and foremost, there simply isn't enough material here to pad out the running time in an entertaining fashion. The introduction to Sweetback, the "fake" arrest, the beatings, and the escape could have been condensed down into a fifteen-minute short, but obviously, that was not a viable option for a film that was hoped to be shown in theaters. So, other scenes were required to pad out the length. Some of them work: watching Sweetback's interactions with the Hells Angels was great, while Beetle and the crazy singer who appears later in the film were both great characters who added to their respective scenes. Unfortunately, not all of the additional scenes work: large chunks of the movie are spent watching Sweetback simply run down the street in various montages, while too much time is spent focusing on the cops wondering where he went. Some of this type of material is necessary, I get that, but certainly not in the quantity that we got.

The second and third problems both lay squarely on the shoulders of Melvin Van Peebles. Again, I give Van Peebles all the credit in the world for daring to create this film, finishing it, and then getting it out to an audience, but as a low-budget director and the leading man, he just didn't have it in him to produce a quality film. As an actor, Van Peebles is just sort of there: his character has no range of emotions, he has a grand total of about three lines in the entire film, and even the (unsimulated) sex scenes consist of nothing more than him laying on top of the woman while letting her do the work. Forget the "pedophilia" accusations brought against him for that opening scene, the man should be convicted of shooting necrophilia. A black audience could easily get behind this character, seeing one of their own stand up to and then one-up "the man", while a white audience can root for the underdog - unfortunately, neither audience is allowed to get attached to the character.

As a director, Van Peebles doesn't fare much better. Ignoring the padding issue that I mentioned above, the film is simply a small step up from incompetent. Scenes are not lit properly, the camera jerks when it really shouldn't, rapid-fire edits are abundant, and even the sound recording is off in key moments of the film. I realize that the film was shot on a low budget, but that is simply no excuse for the many amateurish mistakes found throughout the running time.

As a historical piece, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song would easily get a high rating and my most sincere recommendation; in fact, if you haven't seen it and want to get a better understanding of the blaxploitation genre, this should be required viewing. Numerous black actors owe their careers to this film, as without it, they may have stayed in the "token black guy" roles that they were restricted to and most certainly would not have been allowed to be the "hero" in a white Hollywood. However, based purely on its entertainment value in the present time, I simply can not recommend the movie. It's not polished enough to be an engaging action film, it's not grimy enough to be a great slice of sleaze, and it's not entertaining enough to warrant a purchase or a rental. 4/10.
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