As controversial as it is ground breaking, Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 picture, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is arguably one of the most important African American movies in film. While its’ radical subject matter became popular among militant groups such as the Black Panthers, it also flourished in attracting casual viewers and became a box office hit. This ultimately led to the creation of Blaxploitation films, despite displaying a much deeper reflection of African American identity than its later predecessors. Most importantly however, is the manner in which the project materialized. Directed, produced, starring and written by Van Peebles himself, Sweetback was a pioneer in that it showed its viewers that creating a movie from the ground up without a costly production crew or elaborate studio sets, is not only possible, but can actually be successful. Despite not having a musical background nor being able to actually read or write music, Van Peebles composed and wrote the score himself, specifically directing scenes around each track. Using various atmospheric samples, chants and melodies performed by Earth, Wind & Fire, he perfectly expresses the film’s dark, chaotic and often disconcerted moodiness. From this technique grew a dramatic, finished product pieced together by hazy, intangible sequences conceivable only by the mind of the film’s often silent hero.
Sweetback presents the story of Leroy (nicknamed Sweetback), a velour clad entertainer at a whore house, accused of murdering a black man in the community. With no suspects the police devise a plan to arrest and blame Sweetback in order to appease the increasingly anxious black public. Their scheme however goes awry after picking up and attempting to beat a young member of the Black Panthers, Mu-Mu. Using his handcuffs as a weapon, Sweetback kills the officers and escapes, fleeing for Mexico. The duration of the film is spent recounting his frenzied journey to the Mexican border evading riots, bikers and police in hot pursuit climaxing to its final scene, a warning to all that he’ll be back to “collect his dues.”
Despite the heavy, serious overtones, Sweetback is like a wisp of smoke, briefly appearing and quickly dissipating however leaving a substantial, lasting impression. With less emphasis on dialogue and particular interest given to sound, Van Peebles not only paints the strikingly bleak and harsh lower class life so many African Americans were subjected to, but recreates the mayhem the main character is trapped in. Political indications aside, the concept of the ‘man on the run’ certainly brings to mind a plateau of emotions. He captures this not only with numerous jump cuts, montage sequences, oversaturated film and fidgety camera movements but with the use of explosive, sudden noises overlapping both dialogue and music. An exceptional scene depicting this would be upon the arrest of Mu-Mu. A jazzy funk rhythm accompanies a realistic, oversaturated montage of city life and reduces volume only when the police driving exchange a few words of small talk. This is abruptly interjected by the blazing, intimidating noise of what appears to be an oil derrick and is followed by Mu-Mu being lead out of the vehicle. Several times throughout the scene, the sounds in the background are amplified with each physical strike, finally coming to a momentous roar as Sweetback attacks the two men. After a few words, the sound is heard again and drowns out to the same music we heard moments ago as the two men run. While it appears clear that the music isn’t heard by the characters, the lines are blurred by the interrupting thunder of the derrick and one may begin to question if the sounds are a direct manifestation of Sweetback’s thoughts and emotions.
This is later expanded on after an injured Mu-Mu escapes the police by motorcycle and Sweetback, on foot. Still fleeing from authorities, the music heard during all of the previous montage sequences, changes to a fast paced, frenzied melody accompanied by paranoid, frazzled vocals begging the speaker’s feet to keep moving. As he finds his way through the city in darkness and finally toward the dessert, one can’t help but wonder if the dialogue is coming from his mind or if it’s purely non-diejetic. This is heard throughout numerous scenes including one in which an unrelated black man is assaulted and beat by police, uncaring whether or not he was the suspect. Using a similar technique, the final scene shows him disappearing into the mountains to threatening, imposing tribal drums. The words of the police are repeated several times over the music which sharply cuts to samples of “Wade in the Water.” This is particularly outstanding as it seamlessly gives the viewer a glimpse into the jumbled, crazed mind of Sweetback as he attempts to make that final run across the border. A distorted, seemingly random mess of sounds is the ultimate portrayal of a man so close to freedom knowing that should he fall or slow, there are police and hounds close behind.
While Sweetback will certainly be remembered for its revolutionary depiction of modern bigotry and realistic displays of unrestrained racism, its artistic credibility should not be overlooked. Every detail from the visible specks on the camera lens to the muddled and often unidentifiable noises heard throughout, Van Peebles leaves no detail to circumstance. From dubbing over the vocals of a club songstress with the ear piercing shrills of a flute, to the ending credits accompanied by the eerie, avant-garde sounds of horns, police cars and beating drums, every sound is carefully calculated. The dreamy, saturated effects of the night shots and erratic sounds create and mold the world that becomes Sweetback’s living nightmare, sadly one all too real for African Americans of that era. It is this realization and the execution of such that makes Sweetback culturally significant as well as timeless.