Pioneering African-American writer and director Melvin Van Peebles, whose groundbreaking 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” inspired a younger generation of Black filmmakers, has died at the age of 89.
Van Peebles, often called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” died Tuesday night at home with his family, his actor son Mario Van Peebles and The Criterion Collection said in a statement.
“We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.
With “Sweet Sweetback,” a low-budget film about a s.e.x show performer who ends up killing two racist cops who were beating a Black Panther activist, Van Peebles ushered in an era of “Blaxploitation” films and was an inspiration to a new generation of filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins. I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” Van Peebles told the New York Times in a 2010 interview. “I do what I want to do.
“Sweet Sweetback,” which Van Peebles wrote, directed, financed and starred in, opened in just two venues but thanks to strong word-of-mouth among Black audiences went on to take $10 million, making it the highest-grossing independent film in history at the time, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The Criterion Collection, which is releasing a collection of his films, called it “a landmark of Black and American independent cinema that would send shock waves through the culture. I am so saddened by the loss of my brother Melvin Van Peebles who brought independent Black cinema to the forefront with his groundbreaking film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Lee wrote.
Damn, We Have Lost Another Giant! Condolences To The Peebles Family. Moonlight” director Jenkins said Van Peebles made the most of life.
“He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off,” Jenkins said on Twitter.
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