Baadasssss! (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs WAY up for Mario van Peebles and his edgy, heartfelt, and funny re-creation of his father's struggles in Hollywood. Tuna and Scoop were both enthralled by this film, and watched or listened to every single minute of extra features on the DVD, including commentary and featurettes by Mario and his father Melvin.

Scoop's comments in white.

Sometimes the right ingredients just come together.

When Mario van Peebles was 13 years old, he watched his father Melvin go through the painful experience of financing and creating the first major independent movie made by a black man for black audiences, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song.

Son Mario played a couple of parts in the film, even doing a sex scene with a plump, older woman. Father Melvin produced, directed, starred, and wrote a lot of the music for that 1971 film. Later, Melvin wrote a book about his fascinating experiences. Some thirty years later, a grown-up Mario has written and directed his own film about his father's film. He has combined his own memories and his father's book into Baadasssss!, a movie in which he also stars as his father.

The father's film, truth be told, was not much of a film at all. (Review here.) It was shot in 19 days on a minimal budget with a non-union crew, family, friends, amateurs, and volunteers. As filmmaking, it is about on a par with Manos, the Hands of Fate. It was more of a social statement and an entrepreneurial success than an artistic achievement. The lead character, for example, is on screen for nearly the entire film and only has about six lines. The dominant action in the film - more than thirty minutes - consists solely of Melvin looking over his shoulder, jogging wordlessly through various urban and rural landscapes, accompanied by a jazzy, looping musical score. A good chunk of the rest of the film consists of explicit sex and nudity.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song may not have been a very good film, but it was a cultural phenomenon.  Just as Easy Rider had established the existence of a lucrative hippie market, Sweetback turned out to be an enormous financial success which convinced the Hollywood suits that there was a large, untapped black market. Although Sweetback itself was a labor of love and not an exploitation picture, its success identified the market for a solid decade of blaxploitation to follow, and the story behind the father's film made a helluva story for the son's film, Baadasssss.

Unlike his dad's film, Mario's Baadasssss! is a genuinely good movie, not so much because it is executed well as because it just had such a ripping yarn and colorful characters to start with.

  • Melvin couldn't sell his story to the Hollywood suits. They had no interest in a story about a non-political black man radicalized into a police-beating rage when he witnesses corrupt police violence against another black man, especially since the black man is unrepentant and escapes scot-free at the end. With the Hollywood Boulevard of cash blocked off, Melvin had to find some other route toward financing, and that process provides Baadasssss with some of its best laughs. Melvin's hopes are raised and dashed several times, the worst shock coming after he got a drug dealer to finance the film, only to find out a few days later that the dealer had been arrested and was headed to prison. Melvin was without financing, although the crew had already been hired and the shooting schedule had already been laid out.
  • When the actual filming got started, the wild times really began. Melvin had to browbeat his crew into 18 hour days. He had to outsmart the unions by pretending to shoot a porn film. (The unions didn't mess with porn, so Melvin needed to convince them it was a skin flick in order to avoid paying union wages.) He had to commandeer a hooker on short notice to play a role which his would-be star refused at the last minute. He had to use his son in a scene which would be considered kiddie porn today. He had to take an emergency $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to finish the film. He even beat the crap out of his editor when the kid threatened to quit.
  • When the film was completed, Melvin couldn't get anyone to distribute it. It opened on two screens: one in Detroit and one in Atlanta, and there was no money to advertise it to its target market. Somehow, against all odds, black people did eventually find out about the film, and took to it, just as the youth market had taken to Easy Rider. Sweetback ended up one of the top grossers of its year, possibly the biggest moneymaker, considering its shoestring budget.
With his script and his performance, Mario created a complex Melvin van Peebles, a man simultaneously detestable and admirable. Like many goal-oriented men who are obsessed with achievement through hard work, Melvin tolerated nothing that stood between him and his goal, and suffered no fools whose energy and dedication failed to match his own. There was no room for kindness, gentility or honesty unless those characteristics were necessary to get the film made. Mario could see that when he was a boy, still sees that, and does not shy away from telling it like it was. Nor does he hesitate to praise the old man when praise is deserved. I got the feeling he told it like it was.


  • FEMALE: Full frontal nudity from Karimah Westbrook, and several other unidentified actresses.
  • MALE: Buns from Mario van Peebles.

DVD info from Amazon

  • full-length commentary from both Mario and Melvin van Peebles.

  • featurette: The Birth of Black Cinema

  • featurette: The Premiere

  • Q&A with Melvin van Peebles

Baadasssss! is a must-see film for anyone who is really interested in the history of independent film. It may be the most interesting and candid film I've seen about the independent film process, and it may be the most honest and interesting movie ever made about making a movie of any kind. It also carries an important sub-text about the typical portrayal of black people in films made before Sweetback. More important than any of that to general audiences is the fact that Baadasssss! is not a somber, dry, history lesson or a filmmaking lesson, because those things have very narrow appeal. It is also a well paced and entertaining experience with very little down time. It's funny, and it's touching. Mario done good.
Tuna's comments in yellow:

Baadasssss! (2004) is a film by Mario van Peebles about his father Melvin making a 1971 film called Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, which was the first strong black film with attitude, and a very early indie.

Van Peebles senior had finished Watermelon Man and was offered a three picture contract with a studio, indicating that he had arrived in Hollywood. The studio suits expected him to make more stereotypical black comedies, but he had a different idea, and proceeded to do it outside the studio system when the bosses found it too radical. He decided early to use a 50% minority crew, and so had no union support, so he went to the porn industry to find qualified crew. Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song turned out to be a major success, partly because black audiences were looking for a film that portrayed real black people, and partly because of a lot of support from the Black Panthers.

Mario based the film on a book written by his father, and on his own personal memories of the experience. In a full length commentary by Van Peebles Jr. and Sr, Melvin frequently comments favorably on the accuracy of the story. Mario created some composite characters based on real people, but essentially told an accurate story of the making and marketing of the film. Mario not only co-wrote and directed but also played the part of his father as his father, and his father as Sweet Sweetback, even going so far as to use some of the original 1971 costumes.

The story is more than a documentary. It is a great yarn, and is well told. Baadasssss!, like Sweetback's Baadassss Song was made in a short time on a very low budget, but even with the paltry $1M budget, the film looks great, and held my interest start to finish. The limited domestic gross shows that people weren't as taken with it as I was, but it is one of the better films I have seen this year.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert: four stars.

The People Vote ...

Miscellaneous ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a very strong C+. (Both reviewers) If you are even vaguely interested in the subject matter, you have to see it. Scoop says, "If it had been a box office success, I might have rated it a B or even higher, but the small (but appreciative) audience means it is a classic cult film, and that equals C+."

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