Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, ‘Godfather of Black Cinema,’ dead at 89

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, known as the “Godfather of Black Cinema,” died Tuesday at his New York City home, his family said. He was 89.

Van Peebles, the father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, was the force behind 1970s films “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Variety reported.

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His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films announced his death in a statement, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th-anniversary screening of his landmark film ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’; a Criterion Collection box set, ‘Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films,’ next week; and a revival of his play ‘Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,’ slated for a return to Broadway next year.”

Melvin Van Peebles influenced a younger generation of Black filmmakers that included Spike Lee and John Singleton, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The Chicago native was also a novelist, songwriter, theater impresario and painter, the website reported.

The son of a tailor, Melvin Peebles was born on Aug. 21, 1932. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1953 with a degree in literature, served for nearly four years in the U.S. Air Force and married a German woman, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He studied with the Dutch National Theatre and added the “Van” to his last name, the website reported.

“Sweet Sweetback” was a groundbreaking film that Melvin Van Peebles financed and released as an independent production, Variety reported. That paved the way for independent filmmakers, and he proved that films produced by Blacks depicting Black life in the U.S. could be profitable, the website reported.

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement from the Criterion Collection. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Melvin Van Peebles teamed with his son on the 1989 film “Identity Crisis,” with Melvin directing and Mario writing the script and starring as a rapper possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer, Variety reported. Mario Van Peebles directed his father in the 1993 film, “Posse,” and 1995′s “Panther,” the website reported.

Melvin Van Peebles was tapped by Columbia Pictures to direct 1970′s “Watermelon Man,” a racial satire starring Godfrey Cambridge as a bigoted white insurance salesman who uses the restroom in the middle of the night at his suburban home and discovers he is Black, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Columbia did not want anything to do with “Sweet Sweetback,” but Melvin Van Peebles received a $50,000 loan from comedian Bill Cosby, the website reported. He wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the film and starred as its antihero.

The film was made in 19 days and cost $500,000, according to Variety. It grossed $10 million and is regarded, along with “Shaft” and “Superfly,” as igniting the Blaxploitation genre of film.

The soundtrack to the film, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, was released before the film. It was rated X by the MPAA, but Melvin Van Peebles turned that negative into a positive, proclaiming that the movie was “Rated X by an all-white jury,” Variety reported.

“Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but white standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community,” Van Peebles said at the time.

The New York Times called Van Peebles “the first Black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game.”


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