Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song

Apparently a box office success when it was released, this has certainly got to be one of the most Marxist movies ever to reach a wide audience.

Before the opening credits we learn “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of The Man,” and then we learn that it stars “The Black Community”.

The force behind the film was writer-director-star Melvin van Peebles who plays Sweetback, a sexually gifted silent dude with impressive sideburns.

In the wrong place at the wrong time, Sweetback witnesses a brutal beating of an African American by racist cops, and seizes the moment to kill the cops and save the Brother.

Then he’s on the run constantly and often literally. Many scenes are of Sweetback running through the oil fields around Los Angeles. How far can this guy run? Mexico, across the border? He’s like Odysseus in that he meets all sorts of strange and interesting people along the way. Solidarity among the working class keeps him from getting busted.

The film was apparently rated X in 1971; it might get a PG-13 rating today. The violence is mostly artsy off-screen stuff, there’s not much nudity, and sexual intercourse is presented as an amazingly passive activity.

In fact, his awesome sexual prowess notwithstanding, Sweetback is an amazingly passive guy. He does kill the cops but otherwise he doesn’t do much except run (and screw) and he doesn’t talk much. He’s sort of a mythic figure, an icon in the making; he represents the masses. Too much personality would make him an individual, not a symbol of the oppressed class.

This is a low budget movie with the bad sound and poor production values that implies. I guess The Man at the Hollywood studios wouldn’t put up the money for an A-level production. Curiously, comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby were among those behind the financing of Sweet Sweetback.

Dick Gregory, who came to prominence as a stand-up comedian openly addressing racial tensions, was active in the Civil Rights movement of the early 60s, even getting arrested for demonstrating. His lifelong social work continues as he now speaks out for animal rights, but he’s probably most known for his business promoting the Bahamian Diet and related nutritional products and for his own extreme form of a vegan diet that includes only uncooked foods.

Bill Cosby came to prominence as a comedian also, although his humor was less racial than Gregory’s. Known primarily as a TV star – “I, Spy” was apparently the first dramatic series with a black lead, Cosby also starred in raunchy movies like Uptown Saturday Night and Mother, Juggs, and Speed during the 70s. His career may be a metaphor for the political trends in the country as he vaulted to superstardom with the conservative situation comedy, The Cosby Show. Debuting in the year of Ronald Reagan’s reelection to the presidency, this show about a loving easy-going family with a very high income was the polar opposite of Sweet Sweetback. I remember middle-aged white people raving about how wonderful it was. Cosby leveraged his avuncular persona to become the commercial spokesman for Coca-cola and Jello, two comestibles which have probably not entered Dick Gregory’s mouth any time in the last three decades.


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