Mario Van Peebles’ new film, “Baadasssss!,”tells the behind the scenes story of his father Mevlin’s struggle to make “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the seminal 1971 film which ushered in a new wave of filmmaking, Blaxploitation, which would immediately change and impact cinema on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls looking to take over the establishment from the inside. How much of “Baadasssss!” is fact-based and how much has been “re-enacted” or “re-created” may never be known, and probably does not even matter. What does matter, and is the main reason film fans should see the film at their earliest convenience, is that while it is not a documentary like “Living in the Shadows of Motown” or “Only the Strong Survive,” we finally have a living testament to the toil many people made, personally and professionally, to create this lasting work.
For almost twenty years, Mario Van Peebles has been living in the looming shadow of his father, making an occasional dent in the box office with the films “New Jack City” and “Posse.” While “Baadasssss!” will likely be little more than a tap in comparison, it is Van Peebles’ most vibrant and appealing film yet, full of the same energy and urgency which went into his father’s film three decades ago, likely because Mario was an active participant in the story even then. How remarkable it is to watch Mario the actor, play his father and directing the younger version of himself (Khelo Thomas), or to see those who helped (Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby) or benefited (director John Singleton) from “Sweetback” being made give back by participating in this film. Cinema is a community, and to see that community work, and sometimes fight, together towards an impossible dream in “Baadassss!” will inspire, or frighten away, up and coming filmmakers for many years to come, for unlike the studio-sanctioned making-of documentaries that come with most every DVD today, we get to see not only the high points but the very lowest of low points. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see on one of these cheery promos Joel Schumacher receiving death threats, Roland Emmerich so stressed over potentially losing his negative that he temporarily loses sight in one eye or George Lucas having to bail out his camera crew because some cop couldn’t fathom that the multi-racial crew coming by the equipment honestly.
Whether you are familiar with Melvin Van Peebles and Blaxploitation films or not, “Baadasssss!” is compelling storytelling from the opening frame to the final credits, led by a cigar-chomping iconoclast doing it by any means necessary. Quite simply one of the best films of the year.Rating: A+