“Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality.”
How do I evaluate a film like this? I’m 40 years removed from its debut, and even then I wouldn’t have been a part of the target audience. Moreover, it can’t really be judged as a traditional narrative–it’s a fable, with figures rather than characters and as simple a plot as they come. And as inventive as it is–and it is gloriously directed, shot, and edited–it also betrays its miniscule budget ($150,000) and rapid shooting schedule (19 days). But not all great films can be easily qualified, and the greatness of Sweet Sweetback lies in its value as a landmark of black cinema and in its sheer cinematic power–you must see it to truly appreciate it. Perhaps the best way to review it would be to simply say…it’s baadasssss.
(Some parts of this review are NSFW)
The film begins with its most controversial scene: young Sweetback (Mario Van Peebles) is taken in by the residents of a brothel, and one day, one of the whores calls him into her room and takes his virginity (when I said “young”…Mario was 13 or 14 at the time), dubbing him “Sweet Sweetback” because of his prowess. A cut later, and Sweetback is now a grown man (Melvin), who works in the brothel as a performer, taking part in a show where he pretends to be a woman dressed as a man, before a fey “Fairy Godmother” reveals his true identity. Meanwhile, a pair of white LAPD officers ask the brothel’s manager, Beetle (Simon Chuckster) to “lend” them Sweetback; there’s been a recent murder in the area, and lacking suspects, Sweetback is to serve as a fill-in.
Sweetback complies, but on the way to the station, the officers arrest a black activist, Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), and beat him, while Sweetback stands aside. Using his handcuffs like brass knuckles, Sweetback knocks out the cops and flees. He returns to the brothel, where Beetle assures him his protection and asks him to lay low. Leaving the brothel, however, another officer begins following Sweetback, and when Sweetback’s cuffs are revealed, they arrest him. A crowd gathers while the officers are calling in, and the car is set on fire, ultimately exploding. In the chaos, Sweetback escapes.
The girlfriend of an acquaintance removes his cuffs (after he sleeps with her), and he goes on the run once more. Police officers torture Beetle, and shoot their guns next to his ears to render him deaf. Sweetback encounters a priest who gives him his blessing (“I’ll say a black Ave Maria for you”), re-encounters Mu-Mu and goes on the run with him, encounters a biker gang who agree to him (after he sleeps with their female leader), is once again cornered by the police and fights his way free, and finally gives Mu-Mu his chance to ride away to safety (with a biker played by John Amos in one of his earliest roles), forcing him to run once more.
But, despite all the odds against him, he escapes to Mexico, and the film ends with the notice (in language I’m not free to use) that he “is coming back to collect some dues…”
Sweet Sweetback could’ve become a mere artifact, an incredibly dated, crude, one-dimensional, stereotype-laden tale that succeeded because it allowed its black hero to be triumphant. And yet, even if the message no longer seems as convincingly conveyed (the villains are so one-dimensional they fail to inspire much real outrage), the brilliance of the filmmaking keeps it fresh. Melvin Van Peebles’ film career didn’t soar after this (he had more success on Broadway and on Wall Street), but between this, the flawed but fascinating Watermelon Man, and The Story of a Three-Day Pass (which I haven’t seen but which looks great), he’s secured his place in film history.
It’s hard to say which should be credited most: the direction, the cinematography, or the editing. Van Peebles was wholly responsible for the first and last of these, and succeeds on both fronts. The film is shot through with energy and passion, veering between gritty reality and hallucinatory surrealism. Shots are blurred, mixed, re-colored, repeated, and shaped into a collage; indeed, the film is really more collage than narrative. Dialogue takes a backseat (Sweetback himself only speaks a handful of times), and in one monologue, delivered by a woman who might be Sweetback’s birth mother (she’s never clearly identified), the dialogue simply loops and loops; perhaps Van Peebles is making a commentary on the futility of speech–or on the refusal of the black community to cooperate with the racist authorities.
One sequence has a number of people denying having seen or even knowing Sweetback; I’d guess that the production used random passerby to add verisimilitude (and to reinforce the credit, “Starring the Black Community”).
The film is admittedly repetitive and fragmented, but it has an immediacy, a sense of time and place and chaos that a traditional narrative would’ve lacked. It’s not for nothing that the film is credited as “A Film of Mario Van Peebles”; it’s his vision, his desire to “get the Man’s foot outta his ass” that makes the film work.
The cinematography, by Bob Maxwell, is no less impressive. It’d be great if Criterion or some other company could restore the film, since the current DVD looks and sounds fairly rough–but then again, it is a rough film. Still, the images are often strikingly composed, and the editing warps them in some beautiful ways:
Elsewhere, the film often uses lighting to excellent effect, especially in the encounter with the biker gang, which is lit like one of Sweetback’s performances (image NSFW):
It’s a consistently great looking film. I really wish there were more screenshots online, but really, you just need to see this film.
And let’s not overlook the score, written by Van Peebles and performed by Earth, Wind & Fire (whose careers got a major boost from the success of the soundtrack album). While it does use the same theme ad nauseam, it’s a good one, and the occasional use of song really enhances the film, especially “Won’t Bleed Me” and “Come on, Feet”; the former repeats the chorus printed on the poster:
CHORUS: They bled your mama
They bled your papa…
SOLO: Won’t bleed me!
CHORUS: Won’t bleed you?
SOLO: Won’t bleed me!
The chorus portrays society, expressing its doubts that Sweetback can succeed, and the soloist (Sherry Scott?) is the defiant Sweetback, refusing to become another victim of the racist system. Take a listen:
The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the film, and in the film proper it’s performed more harshly, more passionately than on the official recording; the chorus is the film is shouted, almost like a taunt, society taunting the hero who will not be crushed.
I haven’t mentioned the acting, and to be honest, there’s not much to say. Most of the cast were amateurs, but since the characters are mostly one-dimensional, it’s not that much of an issue. Van Peebles does fine as Sweetback, playing him as a symbol rather than a character. Simon Chuckster’s Beetle is probably the closest the film comes to developing a character, and he projects the necessary warmth and fear. Otherwise, the cast is mostly just passable, and the actors playing the white policemen (especially John Dullaghan, who plays the commissioner) are pretty stiff. It’s not a performance-driven film, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s very rarely distracting.
One might reasonably take some exception to its stereotypical depiction of gays, or to its treatment of women (most of whom are there to be the eager recipients of Sweetback’s prowess). I will not pretend to say how others will feel about them. They’re troubling, but for my money they don’t ruin the film; at most they date it more than anything else on display, since for the most part it remains quite vivid.
An objective score for this film is hard to produce, since the film itself is so subjective. It’s a rallying cry, a cinematic protest poem, a symbolic fable–and, for all its flaws, quite a remarkable film. It’s a **** film, and as such, very highly recommended.