Van Peebles, Melvin

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Van Peebles, Melvin

August 21, 1932

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1932. He grew up in Phoenix, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. He attended West Virginia State College in Institute, West Virginia, and Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where he received a B.A. degree in literature in 1953.

After graduation, Van Peebles enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he spent three and a half years as a flight navigator. Facing a lack of employment opportunities for blacks at commercial airlines, Van Peebles was unable to continue this career after his military service. Instead, he became a cable-car gripman in San Francisco. In 1957 he published The Big Heart, a sentimental portrait of the cable cars illustrated with photographs by Ruth Bernard. Shortly afterward, he was fired from his job.

Van Peebles spent the next two years making a number of short films in an unsuccessful attempt to interest Hollywood in his ideas. Frustrated, he emigrated to the Netherlands, where he studied with the Dutch National Theatre and toured as an actor in Brendan Behan's play The Hostage. Van Peebles then moved to Paris to continue his attempt to get his work produced. He discovered that the French film directors' union would grant a union card to any writer who wished to make a film on his or her own. He wrote five works of fiction that were published in French: the novels Un Ours pour le FBI (translated as A Bear for the FBI, 1968); Un Americain en enfer (1965; translated as The American: A Folk Fable, 1965); La Fête à Harlem and La Permission (published jointly, 1965; the former translated as Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party, 1973); and a collection of short stories, Le Chinois du XIVe (1966). He filmed La Permission, under the title of The Story of a Three Day Pass, in 1967 for $200,000. The film concerns a black U.S. serviceman and the harassment he experiences when his army buddies discover that he has a white girlfriend. It was shown at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, where it won the Critics Choice award for best film. The film garnered sufficient attention to earn Van Peebles a studio contract with Columbia Pictures.

In 1969, Van Peebles directed Watermelon Man, a farce about a white racist insurance salesman who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become black. Though the film was a moderate success, Van Peebles found that he disliked working in the studio system. He set out to make his next film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), without studio financing. By employing nonunion technicians, investing his own money, and receiving financial support from friends and investors, Van Peebles was able to shoot the film for $500,000. Although Sweet-back, an unconventional fantasy film about a pimp-turned-revolutionary avenger, had difficulty finding distribution through mainstream sources, Van Peebles successfully promoted the film, and it had a large black audience. Sweetback became one of the top-grossing independently produced features, and its success proved that there was a large black audience ready for something other than mainstream films. Along with Shaft, released later in the same year, Sweetback inaugurated the era of the blaxploitation film. By portraying kinetic and picaresque black heroes in opposition to the white establishment, these films played out contemporary urban black fantasies of power and retribution.

The financial success of Sweetback made it possible for Van Peebles to open his musical play Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death on Broadway in 1972. The play's gritty portrayal of life in the black ghetto included frank and controversial discussions of lesbians and prostitution. When the play had difficulty attracting an audience, Van Peebles employed the same kind of tactics he had used to promote Sweetback, including the recruitment of black celebrities to attend the performances. Van Peebles's vigorous promotion efforts expanded the play's Broadway run to 325 performances.

While this show was still running, Van Peebles was able to mount another Broadway production, Don't Play Us Cheap (1972), adapted from his novel A Harlem Party (1973). A few months later, he shot a film version of Don't Play Us Cheap.

In 1973 Van Peebles went on tour throughout the United States with his one-man show Out There by Your Lonesome, his last stage work of the 1970s. In the middle of the 1970s he shifted to television, writing two scripts that were produced as television films for NBC. Just an Old Sweet Song was broadcast in 1976, and the highly regarded Sophisticated Gents, filmed in 1979, was broadcast in 1981. In 1982 Van Peebles returned to the stage to appear with his son Mario in his own Waltz of the Stork.

After Waltz of the Stork ended its run, Van Peebles temporarily set aside entertainment in favor of business, becoming an options trader on the floor of the American Stock Exchange in 1983. At the time, he was the only black trader at the exchange. In the middle of the decade, he followed up on his success in options trading with two books, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market (1986) and Bold Money: How to Get Rich in the Options Market (1987).

At the end of the decade, Van Peebles returned to entertainment to direct Identity Crisis (1989), a comedy film written by and starring his son Mario. He later acted in another of his son's films, Posse (1993), an all-black Western, as well as in such films as Terminal Velocity (1994), Panther (1995), and Time of Her Time (1999). In 2000 he released Bellyful, a film written thirty years earlier. In the mid-1990s he co-created two made-for-television films, Gang in Blue and Riot. He also resurrected his musical career with Ghetto Gothic in 1995.

In the 1990s Van Peebles's work received renewed attention as an influence on the second wave of black filmmaking. His films have been featured at several film festivals. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art honored him with a retrospective showing of his film oeuvre.

See also Blaxploitation Films; Film in the United States, Contemporary


Cripps, Thomas. "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the Changing Politics of Genre Film." In Peter Lehman, ed. Close Viewings: Recent Film. Tampa, Fla., 1990.

"Melvin Van Peebles." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, vol. 21. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005. Available from <>.

Parrish, James Robert, and George C. Hill. Black Action Films.Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989.

elizabeth v. foley (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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