Mario Van Peebles as Melvin Van Peebles
Rainn Wilson as Bill Harris
David Alan Grier as Clyde Houston
Ossie Davis as Grandad
Khleo Thomas as Mario
Joy Bryant as Priscilla
Paul Rodriguez as Jose Garcia
Terry Crews as Big T
Nia Long as Sandra
Joan M. Blair as Brenda
Penny Bae Bridges as Megan
T.K. Carter as Bill Cosby
Karimah Westbrook as Ginney
Jazsmin Lewis as Delicious
In the early 70’s, the country was changing. Although the civil rights movement was showing progress, African-Americans had not made much headway in Hollywood, still playing mostly subservient roles. With that in mind, director Melvin Van Peebles took a big chance, turning his back on Hollywood to self-finance and star in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a controversial film about a black man fighting against the system. With a diverse and eclectic crew, Van Peebles spent every penny to make the movie a reality, and despite numerous setbacks, it became a huge hit with the black community due to its strong message. Over thirty years later, Mario Van Peebles plays his father in a movie about how he fought against “the man” to get his movie to the people.
Movies about Hollywood and the moviemaking process tend to be tawdry affairs to those not in the business themselves, and it’s a rarity when one comes along that can appeal to a vast and diverse audience. Based on Melvin Van Peebles’ book “Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadassss!”, his son Mario’s behind-the-scenes look at the movie is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, because it works on so many levels whether or not you’ve seen the original movie.
Despite using a documentary format, Baadassss! is far more than a “making of” movie. The movie’s historical relevance to the state of the movie industry and the country makes it an important chronicle about a little known part of black history. The fact that Van Peebles’ was able to buck the system, defy the odds, and find an audience makes this a timely “rags to riches” story that parallels the recent success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Both filmmakers had a vision and a drive to bring their stories to the screen despite facing obstacles at every turn.
The movie is rather linear, showing Van Peebles’ attempts at getting financing, his problems on the set, and his battle with the ratings system and getting distribution. The way the movie mixes equal parts reality with fiction makes Baadasssss! as innovative and groundbreaking as last year’s American Splendor.
The movie’s greatest strength lies in the underlying story about the relationship between a boy and his father, and how working together on the movie strengthened that bond. Having spent a lot of time on the set as a boy, Mario simultaneously tells the story from the viewpoints of his father and from his younger self, played by Holes’ Khleo Thomas. He follows in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one, not only directing the movie with a limited budget but also starring in the movie as his father. Ultimately, this creates a refreshingly honest look at how two men so closely related can be brought together by a difficult experience. In a pivotal moment, Melvin even forces the young Mario to appear in a provocative sex scene. At times like that, the movie seems like therapy or catharsis for Mario to understand his father more by taking on a similar endeavor.
Though Mario Van Peebles’ acting in the past has not blown too many people away, this very personal role allows him to produce the strongest performance of his career. He portrays his father as a proud and stubborn man, who is harsh and unyielding to all those around him. It’s not exactly a sympathetic character. Despite this, Van Peebles does show how his father was able to get the respect of everyone around him despite some less than popular decisions, such as leaving his crew in jail over the weekend when they’re arrested. Somehow, Van Peebles was able to convince his culturally diverse crew to get along and work together to bring his vision to life.
The great performances by Van Peebles and Thomas are embellished with an eclectic cast of supporting character that bring a humor factor to the movie to keep it from getting too heavy. The secondary characters that stand out include David Alan Grier as the movie’s producer, Terry Crew’s T, a drug-dealer turned security and soundman who gets into many disputes with Melvin, and Melvin’s secretary Priscilla (Joy Bryant) who constantly auditions for him trying to be cast in the movie. Appearances from “Batman” star Adam West and Sally Struthers from “All in the Family” will also bring about a few smiles.
Mario recreates some of the scenes from his father’s movie using the new actors, and the documentary nature of the movie has the actors giving in-character testimonials about the crazy things happening behind the scenes of the movie. The real genius move comes in the end credits when the actors are replaced by the actual people they played. Unlike the earlier testimonials, these are told with the hindsight of knowing that all the craziness worked out in the end. This type of innovative filmmaking is just part of what makes Baadasssss! so special.
The Bottom Line:
Funny at times, touching at others, Van Peebles has taken his father’s story and turned it into a well-rounded and entertaining movie that works on so many levels that it can be enjoyed by a wide range of audiences. Movies like American Splendor, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and documentaries like Lost in La Mancha all form the groundwork for Mario Van Peebles’ intelligent, innovative and thoughtful film. Pure genius.