Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, March 30, 2017


I began 2017's Blaxploitation Month with “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.” So it's only fitting that the month would wrap up with “BAADASSSSS!” The story behind the production of Melvin Van Peebles' landmark film is legendary, full of strife and struggle. This makes it a natural choice for the biopic treatment. What makes “BAADASSSSS!” really special is that it was directed by Mario Van Peebles. As in, Melvin's own son. This gives the film a more personal feeling than you'd expect from most other biopics. The director actually lived through some of the events depicted in “BAADASSSSS!” The film wouldn't get too much attention upon release in 2003 but those who saw it gave rave reviews.

In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles is a success. His comedy, “Watermelon Man,” is a hit. Columbia Pictures has just offered him a three picture deal. The studio is encouraging him to make another comedy. Van Peebles, meanwhile, wants to make a serious film, about a black man fighting against white oppression. About “a street brother gettin' the man's foot outta his ass,” as Melvin puts it. And he wants the black guy to get away at the end. Everyone hates the idea. The studio refuses to produce the script. Van Peebles decides to make the movie totally independently. The producers are sketchy, forcing Melvin to bankroll most of the movie with his own cash. The shooting is guerrilla style. Money is constantly running out. Even after Van Peebles finishes shooting, there's no way for him to know if his confrontational, experimental movie will be a success.

A son making a movie about his own father is a double edged sword. It allows for a personal perspective on the material, presumably resulting in a closer-to-life film. Yet that same connection also could've easily resulted in a hagiography, a glorified ode afraid to treat its subject fairly. Luckily, Mario Van Peebles doesn't approach his dad with kid's glove. In “BAADASSSSS!,” Melvin Van Peebles can be kind of an asshole. He's not always great to his kids, sometimes being too hard on him. His decision to have Mario perform in one of “Sweetback's” sex scenes is controversial. The sex-and-drugs atmosphere of the seventies is shown as not always the best atmosphere to raise a kid in. Melvin's determination to complete his film at all costs, endangering himself, his family, and his crew, borders on fanatical. When an editor threatens to quit, Melvin punches him repeatedly in the face. The younger Van Peebles is impressed with his father's achievements but doesn't let the old man off the hook either.

Mario Van Peebles is probably best known as a leading man in B-rated fare like “Rappin'” and “Solo.” Yet he has some solid credits as a director, such as “New Jack City” and “Panther.” In “BAADASSSSS!,” he makes some interesting creative decisions. The movie sometimes functions as an interesting hybrid between documentary and bio film. The narrative frequently cuts away to interviews with the participants in the “Sweetback's” production. What's odd is that these interviews aren't with the actual people but with the actors playing them. This isn't the only potentially meta choice Van Peebles makes. Often, Melvin's self-doubts appear as a version of himself, dressed in dark clothing. This is an interesting way to illustrate the creative mind's relationship with doubt and ambition. Occasionally, the film is peppered with other surreal touches. Such as Melvin seeing a singing child floating above him on the ceiling.

Mostly, “BAADASSSSS!” is about the struggles of an independent filmmaker, trying to make a real movie on his own terms. Van Peebles has trouble getting the money necessary to make the movie. One producer demands a sexual favor in exchange for funding. Another is a blasted out hippy who gets thrown in jail the day production starts. It's not the last run-in with the law the production has. His interracial crew is arrested by cops, convinced the Latino and black men stole the equipment. Van Peebles has to blow up a car without a permit. A stuttering actor brings a real gun to the set, which is later thrown in with the prop guns. The boom operator, a black militant played by a young Terry Crews, challenges Van Peebles' authority at one point. That's aside from people leaving the set or money running out. Even after the film is made, Melvin still goes through the struggles of trying to sell a deeply non-commercial film.

Of course, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” would become a commercial success, reaching the black audiences Van Peebles knew mainstream Hollywood ignored, and birthing a cinematic movement in the process. This does remove some suspense from the final act. Despite some flaws, “BAADASSSSS!” is a pretty great movie about making movies. The cast is extremely good, with Mario doing a great job of playing his own father. The loaded supporting cast includes Crews, David Alan Grier, and Rainn Wilson. (Then again, Bill Cosby shows up at the very end, like some sort of in-retrospect boogeyman.) Van Peebles not only pays homage to what his father accomplished but also makes an interesting artistic statement of his own, showing the internal and external conflicts the creative mind endures. [7/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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