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Exclusive: A Glimpse Into The Extraordinary Life That Belongs To Melvin Van Peebles

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act July 11, 2012 at 10:42AM

I recall the very first time I saw Melvin Van Peebles in person, at a Museum Of The Moving Image tribute event in early 2008 for the late St Clair Bourne, who'd recently passed (December 2007).
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melvin van peebles

I recall the very first time I saw Melvin Van Peebles in person, at a Museum Of The Moving Image tribute event in early 2008 for the late St Clair Bourne, who'd recently passed (December 2007).

It was a moment I wouldn't soon forget.

In short, during the tribute, which had the likes of Armond WhiteGeorge Alexander, and Esther Iverem as panelists, a number of attendees in the audience lamented the state of this thing we call "black cinema," mourning the loss of one of its leaders, and the void in leadership his absence left.

While some chose to commiserate with those who we could say were in mourning, Mr Van Peebles, whom I didn't even realize was in attendance, standing in the rear of the vast theater where the event was being held, opted to instead use the moment to challenge the audience; Specifically, he announced his presence without literally announcing his presence, launching into what I'd describe as a lecture on the virtues of self reliance - his voice, intentional, carrying across the large auditorium.

"Stop complaining and do something... look within yourselves and be your own leader," was his clarion call, in summary - a mantra that is still very much of influence on his own personal aspirations and motivations, as he told me during our lengthy chat in his New York City apartment some weeks ago, while reliving cherished moments in his life from yesteryear, of which there are several; each a lesson that helped shape and mold the man that he would eventually become.

Just about every head turned to either find out who this bold and abrasive voice belonged to (or already knew it was Melvin Van Peebles, but turned to acknowledge him anyway); the room fell silent as he continued, and remained that way for a few moments after he ended what probably felt like a scolding to some, almost as if shamed.

Others, like myself and the 2 pals I was with that glorious day, instead felt like applauding, because he'd voiced what we were also thinking in that moment, but obviously didn't have the courage to say, or couldn't think of a way to say it with tact. It's one thing if Melvin Van Peebles, one of indie black cinema's elder statesmen, speaks the words; it's another thing to hear it from some young "punks" who think they "know it all."

And don't be fooled by his slight stature; his confidence is seemingly unrivaled. But as he jokingly told me during our meeting, the fact that he doesn't exactly cut an imposing figure, has actually been to his advantage; most don't expect him to be as gruff, and others are quick to dismiss him even when they discover that he is - however unwisely.

I relayed that past first personal introduction to Mr Van Peebles, after the realization that he hadn't seemed to have changed, or rather mellowed, since that memorable moment 4 years ago - still as pugnacious, and hilarious, even as he reaches Octogenarian status. He turns 80 years old this August, and while he seemingly moves a step or two slower, he's still every bit the enfant terrible I'd always imagined him to be, leading up to my first real-life encounter with him.

Walking into his apartment building, I felt like I was on my way to meet the "black Godfather." Picturing him behind some lavish desk, his trademark pageboy hat, surrounded by an entourage, smoking a cigar, with a glass of wine within arms reach, I soon realized that I was actually just nervous, not at all really knowing what to expect.

I was certainly prepared with a long list of questions to ask him, thinking this would just be your standard Q&A session with a busy celebrity, expecting to be in and out within 20 minutes. But the reality I would later experience was quite the opposite.

After eventually meeting him at his apartment entrance, initial brief pleasantries exchanged, we got right down to business - his business, that is. He hushed any attempts on my part to be formal and in awe of the position I was in, which meant offering me a glass of red wine and a pastry, requesting that I relax and get comfortable.

I did... Eventually.

Interrupted by a phone call almost immediately, he answered it - his curt manner with whomever was on the other end of the line, made me wonder who it was. When I would later learn that the name of the band he currently headlines is called Laxative (because "we don't take no shit," he said), these scattered moments made sense. That he's consistently blunt was a little jarring initially, throwing me a bit out off rhythm with my questioning, but you learn to quickly adapt; after all, as he said, "we don't take no shit."

Hanging up the phone after that very first interruption, he said, "at some point it gets easier to just stop giving a fuck, and you just have to let people know how you feel or what you're thinking," while I got myself situated, accepting his offered glass of wine and that I get comfortable.

And once settled, to be later joined by Mr. Kevin Harewood (a business partner of Mr Van Peebles, and an avid reader of S&A, who made the initial connection between Melvin and I), what I expected to be a brief Q&A session instead became a 2 1/2-hour conversation that felt more like 3 old friends hanging out and catching up, if I could be so presumptuous to say.

Being the "kid" in the group, I understandably spoke the least; but in listening, I also gained plenty. Experience is the best teacher, as the saying goes, and there were many lessons to be learned from the many years of living I was privileged, in that moment, to be surrounded by.

In the process, I also learned a few things about the many past lives of Melvin that I didn't know about prior to our meeting - notably, that he was once a crime reporter, that he once ran a ballet school, that he considered being an astronomer, and more - reliving specific stories from each past life that would require pages of prose if I were to retell each one here.

Suffice it to say that I was enthralled for much of the time. He's a natural storyteller, which means that you probably shouldn't expect any minimalist answers to questions you ask. Once again... Get comfortable.

And he clearly loves telling stories, although the genius in this is that one could easily forget the question that was asked in the first place; "I talk about life," he said when I wondered whether he ever gets tired of answering questions about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the one film that most know him for, and the film that most would likely prefer to talk him about if they had the opportunity, even though there are other films on his short resume.

"No, I don’t get tired because I don’t talk about it. I talk about life. I’m from the South Side of Chicago – the hood. Started out selling second hand clothes to winos. So, no, not at all. Sweetback is a perfect example of what is possible, so if that’s what they know, then it’s ok to talk about it. You can use that as a jumping off place for other conversation. I could care less. My job is to get it over with; whatever it takes," he said.

And after a moment of silence, to emphasize his point, he stated further, looking at me intently "You may not realize this, but you do me a great honor young man," referring to my interest in wanting to know more about him, and use what I learn via my experience with him to write an article that would be shared with countless others.

"I haven't complained about anything in 50 years. Somebody hits me and I say, 'wow I’m still here to get hit,'" he said with an assured grin, and sealing that particular moment with, "Beats working at the post office," leaning in to take a sip from his glass of red, and then falling back into his seat, ready for whatever would come next.

But, as I would later learn, just don't ask him what he thinks of the current state of what we call "black cinema."

"I don't talk about it," he said when I asked him to share his thoughts on the current state of "black cinema."

In response to why he does not, and will not, he replied that he didn't want to be taken out of context.

"The media likes to pit us against each other," he said, seeming to want to move away from the topic altogether, “so I just don’t talk about any of that.

Further prodding proved futile, as in when I tried rephrasing my question in ways that I thought might get me some kind of an answer (as if I could somehow outsmart the man), focusing specifically on the tiny group of black filmmakers who are currently dominating the "black cinema"-scape.

And then I shifted the focus from the present, asking him what he thought of the future of black cinema and black filmmakers, specifically how confident he is in what's on the horizon, based on what he's seen recently.

"Confidence my ass," he said, almost as if a bit annoyed. "If they got the heart, keep on chucking," he completed firmly, "and you never know, there are more and more coming along," as if to reassure this writer, but I'd say maybe to reassure himself as well.

I suppose one could read between the lines, and make inferences as to what Mr Van Peebles' non-response might suggest as a response itself.

Although, as I expressed to him, I was actually taken aback by his lack of a response, especially since he's unabashedly, unceasingly vocal with just about everything else. I didn't think he'd at all be concerned about being taken out of context - after all, he's Melvin Van Peebles, recalling what he'd said earlier in our conversation about it getting easier to "just not give a fuck," suggesting that maybe he does, even if it's just a little.

And it's because he is Melvin Van Peebles that I didn't press the issue any further, for fear of being rude to my gracious host. Although I should say that this is the one question many of you submitted when I asked for questions for my interview. I'll add that I always feel strange asking that question, because it's so broad and loaded, and one would instead be better served asking something specific.

But, as noted, this was the most asked question, and there's something humorous about the fact that it also happens to be the one question he absolutely refused to answer directly.

His favorite filmmakers, past or present? His response: “I don't watch films like that... I just watch. No favorites."

However there is one current filmmaker he will gladly share his enthusiasm for. Ask him to talk about his son Mario's work, and his demeanor changes. A stern expression turns into a smile in the affirmative.

A proud father, as he grabbed the bag with pastries he offered me when I first settled into his apartment, opened it up, and started to eat whatever it was he first got his hands on.

He relays a moment in which son put father in one of son’s films, albeit a relatively minor role, but was still and, from his reaction, always will be, a request he honors and delights in.

Unapologetically blunt, one thing that I wasn't fully prepared for, and thus not expecting and had to adjust to, were the vulgarities. I just never knew what he would say next; and once i settled into that thought, I came to expect anything, and so eventually wasn't at all surprised by anything, and instead just laughed right along with him when appropriate, which was quite often, given his jovial and playful nature.

For example, when I asked him whether he still enjoyed the work? His deadpan response was: “Did you ask me if I eat pussy?” 

After a short freeze, considering whether what I heard was what i thought I heard, there was nothing else I could do but laugh. I could've asked him to repeat himself just so that I could be sure he'd said what I thought he said, but that wasn't necessary.

After confirming that he did indeed do what he said he did (and much more which I'll leave to your imagination), and that he did so with the kind of frequency men half his age could only fantasize about, and the laughter subsided, he finally responded in the affirmative.

I’m doing about 15 different things right now,” he said, taking a moment to collect his thoughts, and soon added, “there’s the Sweet Sweetback opera, and my band called Laxative, because we don’t take no shit.

After some laughter, he continued, “I’ve been urged to write a book, and I’m also working with a high tech company; I have two things I enjoy – I do a lot of really high level negotiations, and, also, many of the technical problems that need to be solve, I negotiate those too.

Initially surprised by his admission that he handles what he calls high level negotiations for a tech company (I just never knew that at all), it eventually all made sense to me, after realizing how long he’d been an independent, self-sustaining one-man unit - a hustler (but in every positive sense of the word – an aggressively determined person who works tirelessly to advance his stature, we could say), and all the deals he’d negotiated for himself.

So of course, I thought! It’s the kind of work that takes a certain kind of person/personality; and if I were involved in any kind of negotiation, I’d certainly want him on my side, given what I already knew of Mr Van Peebles, and what I learned during my time with him.

Intrigued by the idea, I asked whether he always envisioned Sweetback as an opera. In response, he stood up from his seat, telling Kevin and I that he’d be back shortly, and slowly, but assuredly left the room.

Moments later, he returned with the original soundtrack LP for Sweetback, a little worn, given the over 40+ years it’s been around.

After settling back into his seat, he asked us to read the words written in the title block on the package; Kevin obliged, reading: "Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song, An Opera."

And instantly, Mr Van Peebles yelled emphatically, "RIGHT!" with an intense, defiant expression on his face.

"I didn't envision anything,” he said, almost at a yell; “that's been there for 50 fucking years. All these years I've been working to put it together... I'm not hidden; 50 muthafucking years of sucking ass," he added sternly, and I listened intently.

He continued, still ina bit of a furor, which I could only read as frustration: "When I did Sweetback, only 2 theaters in the US would show it! TWO theaters... I own everything.

Kevin Harewood then interrupted, and explained that they are in talks for the opera, with a deal that will hopefully materialize in coming weeks; and if all goes as planned, Sweetback the opera could be on stage by next spring.

But Melvin didn't all seem concerned about whether Sweetback the opera will happen or not; although it was more like, he's very confident that it will indeed happen.

In addition to Sweetback the opera, I imagined that he must have a treasure trove of unmade scripts (for film and stage), as well as unpublished music.

Before I could even complete my sentence, he said firmly, “Yes!” but wouldn't elaborate.

And as to whether he’ll get to produce any of them, or if there are some that he favors, he replied, “Yes, everything! I’m trying to do everything.

Another pause, as I waited and hoped for more details on these unproduced works, but nothing came, except an exchange of grins, so I got the picture and moved on.

Sharing with him some reader laments that his films aren’t yet available on Blu-ray, with some (like Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha) not even available in any release format for rental or purchase, Mr Van Peebles' response was as follows: “there’s a new process I'm working on... one of the things I notice about "ghetto" films... smaller independent films... people are bootlegging them; they think they are kicking the system's ass; but they're kicking our asses. This is unfair to the filmmaker. I'm releasing the films so they don't get ripped off. I'm trying to do a format so that I avoid that.

He wouldn't explain exactly what this new distribution idea/strategy is, but appeared confident that it would curb the kind of illegal activity he (and countless other artists) find problematic, adding, “Getting over is fine, except most of the time, we're getting over on each other. We're losing. And until I can, once again, use my ass as a vanguard, no I won't be involved in something that could just destroy my people.

I asked a string of other probing questions, and his replies were either curt, or lengthy tales of legend - tales that, as I said previously, would require pages of prose and could probably exist as individual posts themselves. And maybe someday I'll eventually release each one, spread out over several entries.

He is a storyteller - the fact that he's lived a long, eventful life provides lots of material - so I suppose it's only natural that his responses to my questions be, at times, opportunities for trips down memory lane, or flights of fancy - stories from his youth, to the present-day, from being chased by a lynch mob while a 21-year-old officer in the airforce, to his recent sexual escapades.

His 80th birthday drawing near, I ask whether there are any plans for a big celebration; Kevin replies, stating that there definitely are plans for something to happen - plans that will include Mr Van Peebles' band Laxative performing.

Eventually I ask about his general state of mind and health, and his reponse was, "You know, I won’t let anybody get on my last nerve." And I'd say that about sums up Melvin Van Peebles today - seemingly serene; emphasis on "seemingly."

At the end of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, after Sweetback escapes to Mexico, a title screen warns that "a baadasssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues..."

And despite proclamations of "not given a fuck" earlier in our conversation, I couldn’t help but sense that he still very much carries a chip on his shoulder, and underneath the usually cool exterior, a fire burns, as this, dare I say, “baadasssss nigger” has yet to fully collect some (or more specifically, HIS) dues.

I say that, in part, because, despite the movement he gave birth to (a movement that Hollywood would exploit and trivialize), and statements from the likes of Spike Lee calling Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song an example of how to make a real movie, distribute it yourself, and most importantly, get paid for the work (further adding that without Sweetback there may not have been a [...] She's Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, or House Party), it’s arguable whether there’s a similar regard for Mr Van Peebles today, as there is for some of his Caucasian contemporaries, whose names and works are, we could say, far more cherished and celebrated.

But even with my suggestion that there might indeed be some furor lurking underneath that seemingly cool and confident exterior, Mr Van Peebles closed the conversation with, "Here's the thing... I'm very rich, so I don't give a shit. And that gives us a power we can use; do not sell your power short... The honor of sitting here with you guys… it’s an honor; there’s nothing you can put on it. You are our future."

This article is related to: Melvin Van Peebles


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