We can thank France, not America, for the flourishing of the film career of Melvin Van Peebles.
The Chicago native, who grew up in the Phoenix suburb about 20 miles south of downtown Chicago, died on September 21 at the age of 89. Without Van Peebles, there is no Spike Lee, among others. Van Peebles broke through with the extravagant studio-funded satire, “Watermelon Man” (1970), followed a year later by his self-funded, X-rated provocation (also a big hit) “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”.
Both are part of the new Criterion collection “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films”; Christopher Borrelli of the Tribune will talk about it soon.
As profits for “Watermelon Man” poured in, Columbia Pictures offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal. The director had a few questions and bristled at the interference he knew he was about to endure. He walked away. And despite the remarkable profitability of “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback”, it was effectively ended up in the white Hollywood system, that is, the Hollywood system.
Like Oscar Micheaux, born in Illinois before him, the key black filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century is the subject of a new documentary presented locally next month at the Chicago International Film Festival – Van Peebles made a career despite all the closed doors and racial limitations placed on his ambitions.
A few years before “Watermelon Man”, he had already made an artistic breakthrough with “The Story of a Three Day Pass” (1967), which I saw for the first time only a few years ago. By 1967, Van Peebles was already leading a dozen different lives: US Air Force veteran, San Francisco streetcar worker, prolific writer, director of short films.
By this time he had moved to France. Van Peebles became fluent in French, as a speaker as a novelist. The French Ministry of Culture, working on a much larger and more expansive financial scale than the brand new National Endowment for the Arts, regularly supported writers residing in France who wanted to make films. This is how Van Peebles transformed his novel “The Permission” into “The Story of a Three-Day Pass”, his first feature film.
It couldn’t have happened here.
In the film, a black American GI played by Harry Baird is on leave in Paris. He meets a white Frenchwoman (Nicole Berger, by François Truffaut Tire on the pianist). Their flirtation, their affair and their consequences become, in the hands of the filmmaker, a kaleidoscope of visual and sound possibilities and expression. Interior monologues, flashes of fantasy and caricature, themes of “Uncle Tom” -ism, the slippery and shady racism of France – it’s all in there.
Van Peebles’ breakthrough is a time capsule, I guess, but that phrase implies something distant and musty. “The story of a three-day pass” is neither. He was born at a time when black American artists, writers, and the very casual filmmaker faced what had to be faced, sometimes harshly or crudely, sometimes with surprising delicacy and eloquence, sometimes all at once. “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka, “Blues for Mister Charlie” by James Baldwin and especially “The Fire Next Time”, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” by Lorraine Hansberry: the list is not long, but the decade in fire in America and abroad was needed every ounce of the work of these creators, desperately.
What Van Peebles created, others have borrowed, and that is the history of American cinema in one sentence. When the GI walks into a nightclub in “The Story of a Three Day Pass” the light changes and it becomes a dream sequence – the man’s vision of himself at its coolest , behind shades and an aura of irresistible black virility. It does not work ; he slides, standing like a statue on an invisible camera cart. Represented this way, the GI cuts the crowd of dancers and spectators in half, like Moses and the Red Sea.
It’s a startling shot, and now a cliché. We know that from the work of Spike Lee, almost everything. Every time Lee performs a variation on this visual bloom, he’s a filmmaker paying homage to the filmmaker whose self-taught career helped make Lee’s own career possible.
Entire columns have been written on this majestic plan, a sort of “dicty glide” (to borrow a song title from Duke Ellington, “dicty” being slang for snooty or high-hat), framing a character in the inside and outside the action. Frozen in time, but moving forward.
Van Peebles’ career may have been frozen in its tracks – cruelly, after the punch with “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback” should have set him up for more. But he still moved forward, and it’s important to know where his film career really started. “The story of a three-day pass” isn’t easy to spread these days, but it’s available for rent from Facets Media, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., with a $ 10 / month video subscription. It’s also available as part of Van Peebles’ Criterion four-pack.
Hail and farewell to a pioneer as he glides forward.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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