Rated X By An All White Jury: “The Legacy of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”

At a press conference on March 22, 1971, Melvin Van Peebles read aloud a letter written to Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America. In it he stated:

“As a black artist and independent producer of motion pictures, I refuse to submit this film, made from Black perspective for Blacks, to the Motion Picture Code and Administration for rating that would be applicable to the black community. Neither will I “self apply” an “X” rating to my movie, if such a rating, is to be applicable to Black audiences, as called for by the Motion Pictures Code and Administration rules. I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see. Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”

Nine days later, on March 31st, 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would open at the Circus Theater in Detroit and within five days would gross a staggering $45,534.00 – an all-time house record. And only two days later it would smash the house record at the Coronet Theater in Atlanta. Black cinema, independent American cinema and, perhaps, cinema itself would never be the same.

After making his first (and only) studio film, Watermelon Man (1970), Melvin van Peebles opted to self-finance Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song instead of taking a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures. Like many outsiders who take a chance in Hollywood, Melvin quickly realized that his politics were not welcome within the studio system and he embarked on a quest to make a film all about “getting the man’s foot outta your ass,” telling the story of the titular Sweetback, an orphan raised in a brothel who becomes a star in sex shows before being set up by corrupt cops for a murder he didn’t commit. He then goes on the run from the man. Produced under the guise of being a porn film in order to dodge union rules, and being partially funded with a loan by Bill Cosby – this wouldn’t be the usual show business rags to riches story. Shot between May 11th and June 4th of 1970, the film would be complete by October of that year – though distribution and music held up its release until March 1971. And then there was the whole issue of the MPAA.

Melvin insisted on keeping his film from being submitted to the MPAA but it was, earning the feared X rating, inspiring the marketing campaign slogan “Rated X By An All White Jury.” Only two theaters were willing to open it – the two where it would end up breaking house records – and it would be censored in various places, domestic and abroad, due to its frank portrayal of sexuality including (and perhaps, particularly) the opening scene featuring a young Sweetback (played by the director’s son, Mario) losing his virginity and inspiring the “sweet sweetback” of the title. But that X rating didn’t keep it from becoming a smash it, ultimately grossing $15,000,000 on a (rumored) $500,000 budget.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s success wouldn’t only effect Melvin in establishing him as a revolutionary voice, it would change Hollywood – and quickly. MGM quickly re-wrote Shaft to be about a black private eye instead of a white one and Superfly followed quickly after. Blaxploitation was born. Melvin never directed in Hollywood again, but did find work as an actor including films directed by Mario. But it wasn’t just Blaxploitation that would owe a great deal to Melvin, the landscape of American independent cinema would as well, as he stated in an interview from 2010, “…I’m the grandfather of The Blair Witch Project…”. Odds are that if you’re making a low budget film now, you owe something to Melvin and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Melvin’s son Mario – a noted actor and filmmaker in his own right– would bring the story of making and releasing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to cinema screens in 2003 in the feature length narrative Baadasssss! Adapting his father’s book “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto” as well as serving as director and star (playing his father), to say the film was a passion project for Mario may be putting it lightly. He has a very clear fondness (or even admiration) for his father, saying in his intro for the book’s most recent edition:

“Melvin Van Peebles is many things at once – renaissance man, hustler, revolutionary, wise old sage, player, father, grandfather, friend, comrade, dramatist – and he’s layered like that proverbial onion revealing knowledge only on a “need to know” basis depending on your level and interest.”

Baadasssss! would earn critical acclaim during its theatrical release, including a four star review from Roger Ebert, and would be nominated for a number of awards. It wasn’t the scrappy indie that Melvin’s film was – Baadasssss! was distributed domestically by Sony Pictures Classics – yet it still managed to capture a ragtag spirit. The the film wouldn’t even earn $400,000.00 at the domestic box office, resulting in a commercial failure – the complete opposite of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s performance in 1971. Maybe Mario and the studio should have stuck with their original title: How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass.

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a Creative Associate at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.

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