|The Plot: Sweetback is a young African American entertainer at what appears to look like some form of brothel/cabaret that takes place in someone’s living room. Well, after being escorted around one night by a couple of crooked white cops who pick up a young black kid and proceed to beat him unmerciful. Sweetback, unable to deal with seeing a young black man being treated in such a way he retaliates to the police and proceeds to half-kill them. Now Sweetback is wanted by the law and with no where to hang, he must simply: run!|
The Review: Sometimes being the first in something will carry you quite a long way. You’re not really held to any standards yet when you’re inventing a genre. The films of Bruce Lee never had the stunning choreography of Yuen Woo Ping or many filmmakers who came much later. Sure, but his charisma is what carried those films and great storytelling were also integral in the success of Enter the Dragon. Black Christmas didn’t push the slasher subgenre further than many later films would do – but it relied on a great premise and the delivery of suspense. Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song is definitely one of the first of what we might consider the “blaxploitation” genre – but unlike the previously mentioned films – what is it that Sweetback has to offer? Not simply in comparison to the many great films that the genre would later produce – but I have found that many tend to share my opinion that while Sweetback certainly helped give birth to and influence the work of many independent young African American filmmakers throughout the seventies – it lacks in so many departments that it simply isn’t the sort of film you can bare to watch all too often. Working more like a film of the French New Wave told through the eyes of an oppressed young black man; the film is often needlessly stylized and comes off as slightly pretentious. It’s hard to completely deride the film, since who am I really? I surely didn’t start any subgenre of cinema that grossed millions and influenced the world – but I can’t lie and say that I was theroughly impressed with Sweet Sweetback simply because of the influence the film has had instead of the actual character of the film.
Watching the film, it comes off as if Melvin Van People’s wrote the script certainly with the idea that he would be playing the lead – and that since that was the case he might as well portray his character with as few flaws as possible and as superhuman as they could get away with. Although he does take a few punches in the film, for the most part when the character of Sweet Sweetback isn’t running – he is either knocking out a cop with very little effort or bringing women to orgasm without so much as a thrust of his pelvis. Aside from the displays of his amazing fighting skills and incomprehensible sexual prowess, Peoples does show his character as a testament to perseverance and a fighter of police brutality. These are good things, and I realize/hope that this was the main intent of the film. I’m sure in its time it provided hope and a character that young African Americans could look up to; which is likely the reason it became as popular as it did. Also being such a new thing surely didn’t hurt. However, as it is today it is such a hard film to try and sit through. Featuring scene after scene of random shots of the city, with Sweetback running down streets or across railroad tracks with the very repetitive theme song playing in the background. Then, eventually we somehow stumble into a new mini-story with Sweetback wandering into a location and either laying a chick or fighting a cop/being shot at. There are also the times where Sweetback runs into someone who proceeds to give a long monolauge of advice or simply swear words. This looks like perhaps improv meant to expose a few talents; but it just gives the film an even more fragmented feel – which doesn’t even seem possible.
Sweet Sweeback’s Badassss Song is an oddball flick that should be seen simply because of the cinematic relevance of it, but I won’t lie and say it is anywhere near a favorite film of mine. It is enjoyable if you sit back and take the whole feel of the picture into account and enjoy that. Just be prepared, as the film doesn’t feature a solid narrative and plays out like the editor wanted the film to feel like an acid trip. Lines of dialogue are repeated over and over again while the same sequence is shown in repeated camera angles with fades and effects layered over it. For what reason, your guess is as good as mine. Melvin Van Peoples probably has many reasons behind everything he did in the film, but these things aren’t always evident to the viewer. I give the film a rating of two, because sometimes will carry you a way – but really; if the content of the film isn’t up to the reputation it carries then the distance it will carry you can only be so far.