Second in my Blaxploitation-a-thon is actually the first of the genre to be released theatrically (before Shaft), and thus is largely viewed as the progenitor of the genre as a whole. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made for a piddling budget, and even needed a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to finish production. Melvin Van Peebles directed, wrote, scored, and starred in the film, which given the often gratuitous and risque subject matter and images on the screen, is quite the achievement (and risk) indeed. Nevertheless, for all that Van Peebles put himself through to make this film, it paid off: Sweetback became, at that time, the most profitable independent picture in history.
I mentioned the gratuitous nature of some of the scenes… I probably should’ve been more explicit in my descriptions. This film supposedly contains many unsimulated sex scenes (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea from making the film, and successfully filed for worker’s comp because of it), and the opening scene alone may rub some people the wrong way, to put it lightly, so major disclaimer with this one.
The film feels like a much more roughshod version of Shaft, but with even more to either be offended about, or cheer about, depending on your mentality. This is a far more exploitative film than Shaft; while Shaft was mostly about the strong, take-no-shit persona, Sweetback takes that persona and cultivates it into an expose on everything the black community lives through and deems their “culture”, while infusing it into the blood of the production itself. It creeps into the story, the script, and even the technical quality of the production, which was extremely rough, to put it mildly. While I was very unforgiving with the technicals in Shaft, since it was largely a studio production, I was far more forgiving with the poor technicals in Sweetback, since it barely made the qualifications for an independent feature; that’s how low the budget and how amateur the production was. Still, it was mostly because of the poor quality of the audio and visuals that the film was practically indecipherable; confusing would be a mild term for it – you can barely tell what is happening. The storytelling follows along the same lines, being very muddled and discrepant; this is another one where I pretty much needed the Wikipedia summary of the film to clear things up for me, so for a film to be so inconsistent in every way, to the point where you can’t even follow the story; I don’t know if I can be so forgiving toward that.
There are so many stories to be told about this film, and especially about the making of it, that I couldn’t possibly fit them all in this review; the film’s Wikipedia page covers a lot more of it than I have, and I suggest giving it a read if you’re interested; it’s a good one. Either that, or watch the very good documentary his son Mario Van Peebles made about the film. Regardless, I tried to be more lenient toward this film than I was for Shaft, but I really couldn’t, since I could barely follow along with the plot, and could barely make out the film itself. I understand how important and influential it was for black filmmakers (I now understand where the freeze-framing that got so under my skin in Precious spawned from), but for someone to watch this in order to be entertained, they’ll be so confused by the halfway mark and so repulsed by all the gratuitous sexual content that I’d be surprised if they’d make it through the whole thing, and it’s only an hour and a half long. I’d advise against seeing this, unless you want to be into the whole blaxploitation aspect or want to support independent film, like I did, but aside from checking this off the list, this was just way too difficult to make out to warrant a recommendation.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10