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A fascinating look into the pain of creating art
on October 26, 2004
There are some movies that fascinate you only by what's happening on-screen, and then there are movies like Baadasssss! (and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives) that get you thinking just as much about what in the hell is going through the director's mind. I imagine a lot swam through director/star Mario Van Peebles' head as he portrayed his own father, Melvin Van Peebles, in this gritty tale about the making of the 1971 black cinema landmark, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In Baadasssss!, Van Peebles portrays, thanks, skewers, criticizes, and analyzes his father all while a great true story unfolds before your eyes. This is interesting stuff.
By the time the '70's rolled around, it seemed that African Americans were out of the worst of it, but still had a long way to go when it came to the world of cinema. Baadasssss! opens like an assault on the senses, a wild musical score grooving in the background, Van Peebles narrating in a cool baritone, and images of offensively cliched blacks thrown onto the screen. Back in 1970, Melvin Van Peebles was the token black director, who had just penned a comedy called Watermelon Man, but this time wanted to do something different. Something radical. Something "serious as cancer," he says. A story about a badass rebel brotha' who grew up in a brothel and got laid at 12, grows up to brutally beat two white police officers who harass and assault another black man, and then goes on the run...well, you can imagine what the old fat white men at Van Peebles' production company would have said. But he doesn't care - Van Peebles wants this movie made, so he goes independent.
There's a great scene in the beginning of the film that reminded me of the opening hotel room sequence of Apocalypse Now. Mario (played with a sly bravado by director/son Melvin) has holed himself up in his room to write Sweet Sweetback's... and, through some of the best editing I've seen this year, he doesn't leave until every page is stuck on the wall and the vision is in his mind. I loved this scene for what it was when I saw it, but thinking about it later I realized it contained both the best and worst aspects of the film itself.
The good side: Baadasssss! is as fast-moving and passionate as the film it documents. Much like Girl With a Pearl Earring, the best scenes in the movie are when its characters are so wrapped up in the process of creating art you can feel it. And the back story is fascinating as well - being a mainly minority cast and crew, some members were unfairly arrested; being an independent production, Van Peebles flat-out ran out of cash a few times; and being an incredibly brave and risky movie, that notorious opening night had the possibility to sink or make its director.
The bad side: Mario Van Peebles still hasn't really come of age as a director, so the emotional and racial tensions of the film are really shaky. Case in point: the way white people are portrayed in the film. I was really disappointed that Van Peebles couldn't have at least elevated most, if not all, white people in the film above caricatures. It's almost hypocritical in a sense, since the film - after all - is about a people rising above the cinematic cliches to which they'd been subject for decades. Then again, maybe this was his intention, a little middle finger in the air to white power. Whatever.
I was with Baadasssss! the whole time, and for me, the make-it-break-it moment of the film is the make-it-break-it moment of the story itself. It takes place during the first public showing of the film, and I won't say much about it, but I will say this: it's the finest scene in the film, and Mario officially proves himself as a director and star in that brief moment in time.
Baadasssss! isn't a whole lot of a deeply human story until its final act, but it shows the exhausting ins-and-outs of independent filmmaking and personal ambition so well that it hardly puts a dent in the movie itself. It's a 'backstage' movie, but the real gut-wrenching comes from whether Van Peebles'll have enough film to do a scene, if the editor won't quit, and if Bill Cosby will loan out $50,000 just so post-production can happen. It seems a lot more real than most glossed-over tales of moviemaking, and it certainly helps that it's a son's labor of love in honor of a father's blood and sweat. Baadasssss! isn't badass all the time, but it does have a badass final shot - which I won't reveal here - that sent a chill right up my spine. Stay for the credits. B+