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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Mario Van Peebles
scr Mario Van Peebles, Dennis Haggerty
with Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Nia Long, Khleo Thomas, Rainn Wilson, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Saul Rubinek, TK Carter, Paul Rodriguez, Terry Crews, Vincent Schiavelli, Ralph Martin, John Singleton, Sally Struthers, Adam West
release US 28.May.04,
04/US Showtime 1h48
Let's make a movie: Bryant and Van Peebles
Not only is this one of the most important making-of dramatisations, it's also a powerful love letter from a son to his father. With wit, energy, heart and soul, Mario Van Peebles recounts the making and marketing of his father Melvin's groundbreaking 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the film that made artists like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino possible.
Melvin (brilliantly well-played by Mario) is a young filmmaker whose ideas for authentic black cinema are too far ahead of their time. No one's ready for a realistic portrayal of African-American life on screen; they prefer to keep black actors in cliched roles that are either subservient or noble. But Melvin wants to make a raw, edgy thriller with a racial injustice theme. So he scrambles to raise the money himself, with a few close friends at his side and his sceptical 13-year-old son Mario (Thomas) in a pivotal role that includes a sex scene.
Mario subtly and cleverly parallels the stories of Sweetback and Melvin, black men fighting a prejudiced system and subverting it in any way they can. But this aspect of the film is relatively understated; more important is Melvin's rollicking story, including the tensions and connections between the various characters and the much larger issues they were battling against. Even though this is a raw, low-budget movie, Mario gets virtually everything right, from the impeccable recreation of the early 1970s to the lively atmosphere on a guerrilla moviemaker's set. It's quite simply one of the best movies ever made about independent filmmaking.
Like the film it springs from, this is both vitally important moviemaking and thoroughly entertaining. It's jammed with telling and provocative performances (including a jaw-dropping cameo from West, aka Batman), inventively written and directed sequences, and a lovely flood of subtext in the Mario-Melvin relationship. Melvin isn't remotely portrayed as the perfect father, but without ever being preachy about it, Mario's clearly saying that he understands why his dad was so focussed and sometimes thoughtless. And in making this film, Mario shows an understanding of both the issues and the art of filmmaking that must make his father feel the same.
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