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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Keeping it all in the family

Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 11, 2003

The current Toronto International Film Festival's version of Rocky is a disarming tale of snatching victory from defeat called How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass. It's directed and stars Mario Van Peebles, who as an actor most recently played Malcolm X in Michael Mann's Ali, and as a director made such films as New Jack City (1991) and Posse (1993). The film is a tribute to another director, his father, Melvin Van Peebles, and his experiences making the first blaxploitation film, 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song.

Melvin not only directed Sweetback, he produced it, wrote the score (played by Earth Wind and Fire) and starred in it, though his dialogue was as minimal as the plot. The story follows a hustler named Sweet who was raised in a brothel. He kills some white cops who are brutalizing a radical brother, and spends most of the rest of the movie on the lam, running through the back alleys and brothels of Los Angeles, stopping frequently to have sex -- even impressing a bike gang by bringing their female leader to orgasm. The film ends with this warning: "Watch out! A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues."

"Can you imagine?" says Mario. "This was around the same time as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Mario, who is in his mid-40s, is tall and strikingly good looking (he was one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people back in 1992). He clearly enjoys his father, and let's him do much of the talking. Melvin, 71, is the flashier dresser -- he wears a tan suit, and has an unlit cigar between his teeth, and pink socks with sandals. As they sit down to talk about their two movies, more than 30 years apart, father and son share a combination of familial and collegial affection.

When Mario was researching his part as Malcolm X in Ali, he talked to Muhammad Ali and his father (who had interviewed Malcolm X). They talked about how Ali was the first "black power" athlete and Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song was the first black power movie. "It struck me that I had a great story right here in my back yard and all I had to do was give the family tree a shake."

Mario, who was 13 when the movie was made, had a part as the young Sweet, being initiated into sex by a prostitute. It would be unlikely to make it past censors today and, in fact, the movie was rated X at the time. Melvin used this to his advantage, advertising the film as "Rated X by an all-white jury."

Melvin wrote a book titled How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass, based on a journal he kept while making Sweetback, because the circumstances of the shoot were so bizarre. At one point, the entire crew was thrown in jail because police assumed they'd stolen the film equipment.

The picture of Melvin is not entirely flattering: He's a control freak, a macho swaggerer, who was habitually unfaithful to Mario's mother, and always ready to play any angle to his advantage. (In the Criterion DVD version of the film, Melvin reveals on the commentary that he contracted venereal disease during one of the sex scenes -- and applied for compensation benefits for his work-related ailment.)

Did the portrait of himself make him squirm?

"I found it very, very accurate. I found the guy in the movie brilliant, courageous. . . I know what's involved in translating from a book to a film. I found it eerie the composites and telescoping that he [Mario] did, how he captured exactly the flavour of the times, the relationship between the father and son."

Melvin made his first film, The Story of a Three Day Pass, in1967, while living in Paris. Its success allowed him to move back to the United States, and get hired by Universal to direct Watermelon Man, a comedy about a white insurance agent who wakes up one day to discover he's black.

For his next film, Melvin had different ideas. He wanted to capture the black street experience and militancy that nobody was seeing in the movies. The studios wanted him to do another race comedy but he declined. Scrambling together finances, using non-union crew, and some money from his friend Bill Cosby, he made Sweetback. Melvin's only promotion was a song he had written for Earth Wind and Fire, which had made it to radio.

Then there was that title, which was too big to fit on a marquis without squeezing, but definitely grabbed attention.

"I had a lot of fights with that title. When we were shooting the film, people kept saying, 'What are you really going to call it?' I had a guy give me a contract that said, 'Sweetback, formerly known as Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song' and I said, 'Like hell it is.' And he said, "But I don't even know what this means.' "

So what does it mean? To begin, "Sweetback" is slang that means a big penis or a talented lover. Melvin thought "baad assss" was more accurate to spoken speech. "You don't call someone a badass. You call him a baad assss. The five s's came about because newspapers of the time were very careful. You couldn't put the word "gosh" in a title, never mind "ass." We misspelled it so they could write the whole title out if they were behind the film. You know, I could have called it the The Ballad of the Indomitable Song of Sweetback, but I was aiming at black audiences and the hippies and beatniks, and I knew which of those titles they'd want to see.

As Mario'sfilm shows, his father's grand plans almost came to nothing. The film's climactic moment finds the hero sitting in an empty theatre, desperately waiting for someone to show up. Did it bring back bad memories?

"If you've ever looked down the barrel of a gun, you don't need to be reminded," says Melvin. "The first night was in this big theatre in a black area. They didn't show first-run films in black areas at that time. They said, 'They don't go to the movies.' So there I was on the Wednesday night opening in this huge old theatre, which had had the balcony closed for the past 15 years, and there was nobody there. Finally this woman and her daughter came in and bought a ticket. A half-hour later, they came out and said they wanted their money back. If you don't think my butt didn't start to pucker then.. . .By that evening there were lines completely around the block. They opened up the balcony for the first time in 15 years and ran out of hot dogs.. . . I think we made $10-million before the first four white folks had seen it."

Black folks loved it and Sweetback'seffect on Hollywood was immediate. The movie Shaft, which was in preproduction at the time, was instantly rewritten to star a black lead. Superfly and Foxy Brown soon followed, as the studios discovered the black audience for the first time.

The message of How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass is a movie aimed at anyone who loves the underdog, Melvin says. "Really, it's just Seabiscuit on two legs." ROBTv Workopolis