Melvin Van Peebles
Van Peebles, Melvin 1932–
Melvin Van Peebles 1932–
Filmmaker, playwright, actor, writer
Melvin Van Peebles is a multital-ented artist whose flair for deal-making and devotion to his craft have brought him success in films, on stage, in business, and as an author. He isprobably best known as the writer, director, producer, composer, and star of the pioneering black action movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In Sweetback, Van Peebles pushed the limits of cinematic sex and violence and created a new type of black character, one who was shockingly fierce and radical. Because of Sweetback’s legacy, which includes “blaxploi-tation” films like Shaft and Superfly and the inspiration for the generation of African American filmmakers who entered Hollywood in the 1980s, Van Peebles has earned a permanent place in film history.
Beyond filmmaking, Van Peebles has penned both fiction and nonfiction books; directed, written, and starred in several Broadway and Off-Broadway plays; and had considerable success as a businessman and trader on the American Stock Exchange. According to People, his motto is: “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.”
Melvin Van Peebles was born on the South Side of Chicago and grew up in suburban Phoenix, Illinois, where his father worked as a tailor. He graduated from Thornton Township High in 1949 and spent a year at West Virginia State College before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a degree in English literature.
After college, Van Peebles enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and spent three and a half years as a flight navigator. When he was discharged in 1956, he went to Mexico for awhile before settling in San Francisco. There, he married his wife, Maria, and took a job as a gripman on San Francisco’s cable car system.
It was in San Francisco that Van Peebles first began to think critically about the way movies portrayed people of color. “I was your basic double-feature, matinee guy. And I got tired of seeing these downtrodden, going-nobly-to-their-graves kind of characters,” he told the Salt Lake City Tribune. Convinced he could do better, he got some rudimentary technical advice from a photographer friend and began making short films. The best known of these early films is 1958’s Three Pickup Men for Herrick, about a kid who dives off a bridge.
Born August 21, 1932, in Chicago, IL; son of Edwin Griffin; married wife, Maria, c. 1956 (divorced); children: Mario, Meggan, Melvin. Education: Ohio Wesleyan University, B.A., 1953; also attended University of Amsterdam.
Cable car gripman, San Francisco, CA, c. 1956–58. Author of fiction; writer and director of short films, 1958—, and feature films, 1967—. Stock trader and consultant, 1981—. Acted with the Dutch National Theater, 1959; writer and filmmaker in France; toured United States in one-man show Out There By Your Lonesome, 1973; writer, producer, and actor on Chicago and New York City theater circuits, beginning 1970s; principal stage appearances include roles in Don’t Play Us cheap and Waltz of the Stork.
Director of motion pictures, including Watermelon Man, 1970; writer, director, producer, composer, and star of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, 1971; director, producer, and actor in Identity Crisis. 1990; music video director. Additional acting credits include roles in television miniseries The Sophisticated Gents, 1981; episodes of television series Sonny Spoon and L.A. Law, motion picture Jaws: The Revenge, 1987; PBS-TV production Taking Care of Terrific, 1988; and motion picture Posse, 1993. Military service: U.S. Air Force, navigator-bombardier, 1953–56.
Member: Directors Guild of America, French Directors Guild.
Awards: First prize from Belgian Festival for Don’t Play Us Cheap; Emmy Award for The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, 1987.
Addresses: c/o Gramercy Pictures, 9247 Alden Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210; or c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
In 1959, after being fired from the cable cars for writing The Big Heart, a summary of his experiences there, he took his films to Hollywood hoping to find work. He was rejected by both the Directors Guild and the major studios—one of which offered him a job as an elevator operator. Frustrated with his opportunities in the United States, Van Peebles, his wife, and their children Mario and Meggan packed up and set off for Holland, where he acted with the Dutch National Theater and studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. In 1960 he broke up with his wife and traveled to Paris. There he sang in clubs, danced in the streets, and reportedly had numerous affairs. When money was short, he panhandled to survive.
Van Peebles tried to enter the French Directors Guild but, as an unknown African American, found it closed to him. With the encouragement of Henri Langlois of the French Cinémathèque, a film depository, he decided to write and direct his own work. To that end, he penned Un ours pour le F.B.I. (later published in the United States as A Bear for the F.B.I.), which the New York Times described as “an almost elegiac reminiscence about a black boyhood in the Midwest.” In the next few years he finished four more novels in self-taught French: Un Américain en enfer, Le Chinois du XIV, La Fete à Harlem, and La Permission.
Later in the 1960s Van Peebles took a screen treatment of La Permission to the French government and convinced authorities to grant him $200,000 to shoot what became The Story of a Three Day Pass. Released in 1967, Three Day Pass depicts an affair between a black American soldier and a young, white French woman. Influenced by the French New Wave, it touched many critics with its sweetness and was initially shown as the French Delegate at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Some critics faulted Three Day Pass for its amateurish direction. This is not surprising, given Van Peebles’s level of training at the time. He described his “crash course” film education in the book No Identity Crisis as “a guy showing me how to… glue the ends of film together.” Still, reviews for Three Day Pass were generally positive, and when Van Peebles returned to the States he parlayed them into an assignment from Columbia Pictures to direct Watermelon Man, a 1970 comedy by Herman Raucher about a white suburban racist who wakes one day to find himself black.
While Watermelon Man contained some memorable scenes of black comedian Godfrey Cambridge trying to whiten his skin by taking milk baths, it was criticized for its overall blandness, its lack of originality, and its failure to toe the liberal line. A New York Times reviewer noted that it “seemed rooted in television situation comedy.” Donald Bogle, author of Blacks in American Film and Television, called it “an updated tragic mulatto story,” and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had spent years trying to eradicate the ridiculous association between blacks and watermelons, was offended by the title.
On the other side of the coin, the New Yorker’s Penelope GUliatt wrote that Watermelon Man showed “a distinct glint of insurgence and a witty, self-promoting, ambitious bad taste,” and that though the film was “hopelessly constructed” and “fairly lousy as a piece of filmmaking,” it was “quite a feat of off-key funniness.”
In 1971 Van Peebles took the money he had made on Watermelon Man, gathered some outside investors, and made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, one of the most successful and audacious independent features of all time. Sweetback is the story of a black sex-show stud who witnesses the brutal beating of a young black revolutionary by two policemen. The stud—played by Van Peebles— gets angry, kills the cops to avenge the youth’s death, and flees defiantly to the Mexican border. Sweetback shocked theater owners to such an extent that initially only two cinemas in the entire nation booked it.
In the face of this virtual blackout, Van Peebles used the persona of the hip black rebel to sell his movie. He bought advertising on black radio, composed provocative newspaper advertisements, and wore sweatshirts that read “Rated X by an All-White Jury.” Word of the film spread and soon people of color throughout the United States flocked to see Sweetback “rising out of the mud and kicking ass,” as Van Peebles told Newsweek. Black audience response to Van Peebles’s new type of black hero was so strong that, according to the filmmaker in the New York Times, “it made $5 million before three white people had seen it.” The film eventually grossed $14 million and remains one of the most successful independent films of all time.
Critics have faulted Sweetback’s lapses in taste and technique but have praised its brashness and its energy. Bogle found its treatment of women disturbing. A Film Comment reviewer called it “a lousy movie” with a “rampaging spirit … that carried it all the way to memorable.” And the New Yorkcer’s Gilliatt called it “a terrific fable” and “a boot in the face for the wishes of moderates, black and white, who are likely to come away reeling.”
Perhaps the most important thing about Sweetback was its effect on black employment in the film industry. Van Peebles skirted exclusionary film unions to hire black cameramen, designers, and editors. In Smeetbadc’swake, Hollywood hired blck directors like Gordon Park stomake so-called “blaxpáoitation” films such as Shaft and Superfly.
After Sweetback, Van Peebles turned to the Broadway stage to produce Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death in 1971 and Don’t Play Us Cheap the following year. Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death was a collage of songs, soliloquies, and dances in which African Americans—some in the most desperate of circumstances— revealed their loves, fears, and aspirations in what the New York Times called “homely and deeply felt poetry.” Written by Van Peebles and directed by Gilbert Moses, A Natural Death opened in October and was met with hostile reviews and poor advanced sales. Unperturbed, Van Peebles put on his salesman’s cap and targeted the black community for his marketing effort. By Christmas, he was drawing break-even audiences; although A Natural Death never made a profit, when it closed at the end of July it was the fifth-longest-running show on Broadway.
In the spring of 1972, Van Peebles opened the stage production Don’t Play Us Cheap, which he adapted from an earlier play, Harlem Party, that he had produced in Belgium, and his novel La Fête à Harlem, published in France in 1967. Don’t Play Us Cheap is the story of demons who come to earth to break up a New York City house party. Critical reaction to the play was mixed. Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote that the production “arrived with the joyous air of a Saturday night block party,” but Mel Gusow of the same paper claimed that the musical looked “as if were slapped together on the way home from a party.” The following year, Van Peebles directed a film version of Don’t Play Us Cheap, but it was shelved after a single benefit screening. Sixteen years later, Variety called it “an entertaining artifact” with an “atmosphere of a house party in Harlem that’s a direct forerunner of [filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s] House Party.”
In the mid-1970s Van Peebles shifted his focus from the New York stage back to Hollywood, where he wrote and directed films and television. In 1976 he wrote Just an Old Sweet Song, a teleplay about urban blacks moving back to the rural South. Critics found it charming and entertaining, but several wondered how Van Peebles could move from radical fare like Sweetback to what some called a “black Waltons.” After Just an Old Sweet Song, Warner Bros. hired Van Peebles to write and direct Greased Lightning, an early Richard Pryor vehicle about a black racing car driver. Because of problems with the star, Van Peebles left the project before its completion.
Van Peebles’s next project was adapting John A. Williams’s book The Junior Bachelor Society for television. The result was The Sophisticated Gents, a highly regarded 1981 miniseries that explores the lives of a group black men who belonged to the same sports club when they were youths. In The Sophisticated Gents, as in Just an Old Sweet Song, Van Peebles broadened the parameters of standard television fare.
Around the same time, Van Peebles returned to the theater, directing Bodybags and Champeeen! Off-Broadway. In 1982 he staged Waltz of the Stork — thinly veiled, lyrical autobiography—at the New Federal Theatre. Critical reaction to Stork varied. John Simon of New York magazine described it as “the most boring, self-serving, and unnecessary play it has ever been my misfortune not to walk out on till intermission.” The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill was more charitable, calling the show “a leisurely, low-keyed night-club act.”
Given his trials in the New York theater district, Van Peebles may not have been overly disappointed when he lost a bet in the early 1980s to his friend, Dr. Henry Jarecki, chairman of Mocatta Metals, and was forced to sign on as a floor trader with Jarecki’s investment company, Timber Hill, Inc. Van Peebles showed a flair for the hectic dealmaking of the options pit, which isn’t surprising given his business acumen. He soon left Timber Hill and by the mid-1980s was heading up his own firm, VP & Hayes Municipal Securities.
In 1986 Van Peebles published Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market, a widely praised primer on options trading for the novice investor. In talking to the media about his career change, Van Peebles pointed out that he’d always been a dealmaker. “The bedrock is my entrepreneurial self,” he told Black Enterprise. “At that level, there’s not much difference between financing plays and movies and trading on Wall Street.”
In the mid-1980s Van Peebles put his day-to-day investment operations in the hands of associates and returned, at least part time, to the arts. In 1986 he directed the video for the Whodini song, “Funky Beat.” The next year, his teleplay The Day They Came to Arrest the Book won an Emmy. Van Peebles appeared as a street musician in a 1988 PBS-TV production of Taking Care of Terrific, and the following year, he narrated the play Satchmo, based on the life of trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
In 1989 Van Peebles returned to the director’s chair for the first time in ten years to collaborate with his son, Mario, on Identity Crisis, a comedy about a rapper and French fashion designer who fight for possession of the same body. Van Peebles financed the project independently and directed it from a script written by Mario, who also served as the film’s star. Variety called the 1990 release “a fast lane action comedy of the absurd” whose “non-stop parade of impossible characters and assorted [New York City] outrages [make] for enjoyable unpretentious dementia.” Despite some positive notices, Iden tity Crisis opened during a spate of body-switch movies and disappeared from theaters quickly.
Since Identity Crisis, Van Peebles has remained active on Wall Street; published No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son ’s Own Story of Working Together, a journal of the film’s production; written a novel called Dirty Pictures; and in 1993 appeared in Mario’s film Posse. Father and son continue to develop a wide array of projects together. Mario summed up the elder Van Peebles’s work ethic in an Associated Press interview: “He has a sense of humor. He never gauged himself status-wise on where he was in the industry. He said, When you cook something, cook something you want to eat.’”
Un ours pour le F.B.I. (novel), first published in France, 1964, translation published as A Bear for the F.B.I., Trident, 1968.
Un Americain en enfer, first published in France, 1965, translation published as The True American, Double-day, 1976.
Le Chinois du XIV (short stories), published in France, 1966.
La Fête a Harlem (novel based on Van Peebles’s play Harlem Party), published in France, 1967, translation published as Don’t Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party, Bantam Books, 1973.
La Permission (novel), published in France, 1967.
The Making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Lancer Books, 1972.
Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death (based on Van Peebles’s play of the same title), Bantam Books, 1973.
Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market (nonfiction), Warner Books, 1986.
Bold Money: How to Get Rich in the Options Market, Warner Books, 1987.
(With son, Mario Van Peebles) No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son’s Own Story of Working Together, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Also author of The Big Heart, c. 1958, and a novel titled Dirty Pictures.
Harlem Party, produced in Belgium, 1964, later staged as Don’t Play Us Cheap (see below).
(And producer) Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death, staged in New York City at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1971.
(And director and producer) Don’t Play Us Cheap, staged in New York City at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1972.
(And director and producer) Waltz of the Stork, first produced in 1981, produced Off-Broadway at the New Federal Theatre, 1982.
(And director) Champeeen!, first produced Off-Broadway, 1981, produced Off-Broadway at the New Federal Theatre, 1983.
(And director) The Story of a Three Day Pass (based on Van Peebles’s novel La Permission), Sigma III (France), 1967.
(And director and producer) Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Cinemation, 1971.
Creator of short films, including Three Pickup Men for Herrick, 1958. Also author of additional screenplays and teleplays, including Don’t Play Us Cheap, unreleased; Just an Old Sweet Song (television pilot), 1976; Greased Lightning (coauthor; released by Warner Bros.), 1976; The Sophisticated Gents (television miniseries adapted from John A. Williams’s book The Junior Bachelor Society), NBC-TV, 1981; and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (CBS Schoolbreak Special), 1987. Composer of motion picture soundtracks.
Black Writers, Gale, 2nd edition, 1994.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 20, 1982.
Monaco, James, American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies, Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 185-214.
Van Peebles, Melvin, and Mario Van Peebles, No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son’s Own Story of Working Together, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Black Enterprise, October 1986, p. 84.
Boston Globe, February 3, 1991.
Boston Herald, February 8, 1991.
Film Comment, October 1985, p. 39.
Interview, March 1993, p. 108.
Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1992, p. F6.
Newsweek, May 25, 1970, p. 102; May 10, 1971, p. 116; June 21, 1971.
New York, June 5, 1972, p. 72; January 18, 1982; September 5, 1983, p. 42.
New Yorker, July 20, 1968, p. 78; June 6, 1970, p. 85; June 19, 1971, p. 68.
New York Times, April 24, 1971; May 9, 1971; May 17, 1972; August 20, 1972, p. 14; May 28, 1973, section 2, p. 1; September 14, 1976, p. 77; June 22, 1990, p. C10.
People, February 15, 1982, p. 57; May 31, 1993, p. 14.
Salt Lake City Tribune, January 6, 1990.
Time, August 16, 1971.
Variety, February 8, 1989, p. 11; May 24, 1989, p. 33; June 13, 1990, p. 30.
Associated Press report, November 27, 1993.
Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles
Multi-talented and prolific, Melvin Van Peebles (born 1932) paved the way for modern African American filmmakers and rap artists. Called "thegodfather of modern black cinema" because of his controversial 1970 film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Van Peebles also wrote novels, wrote and produced Broadway musicals and TV shows, acted for film and television, and released several spoken-word albums in which he helped invent what later became known as rap music.
Born Melvin Peebles in 1932 on the south side of Chicago, he added the "Van" later. His father was a tailor, and, starting at the age of ten, he worked in his father's shop most of the time he wasn't in school. He later told an interviewer that his long hours in the shop "didn't give me a work ethic as much as it gave me a work routine. It's just something you do; you don't even think about it."
After graduating from high school in Chicago in 1949, Van Peebles attended West Virginia State College, then transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1953. Van Peebles then joined the Air Force and was a flight navigator on a B-47 bomber for three years.
After leaving military service, Van Peebles briefly lived in Mexico, where his son Mario was born. He next moved to San Francisco and got a job driving cable cars. In his spare time, he did paintings and wrote short stories. On the advice of a friend, Van Peebles turned a story about driving a cable car into a movie. Teaching himself film techniques, he made several short films: Sunlight, A King, and A Pick Up for Herrick. Though he had no musical training, he wrote his own soundtracks and played them on a kazoo.
Van Peebles took his films to Hollywood, hoping they would open doors, but instead he was offered jobs as an elevator operator and a dancer. His dreams dashed, Van Peebles decided to pursue a doctoral degree in astronomy, his other love. He moved to Holland and took graduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theatre.
Contacted by movie lovers in France who had seen and liked his short films, he quit astronomy and moved to Paris but at first found no backers to make movies. He began doing street performances, playing his kazoo and singing and dancing for coins. Because he was unlicensed, he sometimes got arrested for begging. Eventually he became editor of a humor magazine and began writing novels. Between 1964 and 1967 he had five novels published.
With a $70,000 grant from the French Cinema Center, he adapted his novel La Permission for the screen and filmed it as The Story of a Three-Day Pass. A saga about a romance between a black American soldier and a young white French woman, it was released in 1968 and submitted as the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival.
Shock Therapy for Hollywood
The Story of a Three-Day Pass brought Van Peebles attention in Hollywood and an opportunity to direct Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures. Watermelon Man was the story of a white bigot who turns into a black man. It was the first time an African American had directed a mainstream Hollywood feature. The studio wanted Van Peebles to shoot alternate endings—one in which the protagonist becomes a black militant, and another in which he wakes up and discovers it was all a dream. Van Peebles intentionally "forgot" to shoot the second ending so that the first would have to be distributed.
With his salary from that film and a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, Van Peebles financed an independent production that set the film industry on its ears. His often scatological, rude and unabashed Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song caused a sensation. Van Peebles not only wrote, produced, edited and directed the film, he composed its score and played the starring role. It was shot in 19 days in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The story of a pimp and street hustler who turns into a revolutionary leader and fights back against police brutality, the film was a favorite of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton. Brash and vulgar, it included Van Peebles's ten-year-old son Mario in an explicit sex scene.
Sweetback was given an X rating. Van Peebles fought back, making T-shirts that read "Rated X By an All-White Jury." After theater owners deleted controversial scenes, he brought a federal lawsuit to get the film restored to its original form. The notoriety over the "X" rating only increased the film's popularity.
Critic Laurence Kardish recalls that the film "wore its X rating like a badge of honor and swept through urban theaters like a house on fire. It proved at once there was an enormous audience for independent films, ones where blacks did something they had not done in earlier American films: fight back. Sweetback is the first American film with a black protagonist who refuses to adapt to the daily humiliations of racism."
Though slammed by many critics, the film was a big hit and led to a spate of "blaxploitation" movies, films in which Hollywood trafficked in lowbrow African American humor, sex and violence. Within two years after the release of Sweetback, Hollywood released dozens of such movies. Suddenly there were numerous roles for black actors, and opportunities for black producers and directors in the film industry.
"Blaxploitation would not have taken place without the huge financial success of Sweetback," Van Peebles told Julie Dash for Interview magazine. "The formula of Sweetback was preempted—taken and perverted and watered down and used in a counterrevolutionary way." Van Peebles told the web site Motorbooty: "Hollywood wanted the money but they didn't want the political implications, so [they] took the more cartoonish elements and pushed them."
Documentary filmmaker Saint Clair Bourn said of Sweetback: "He made a film in Hollywood that a lot of black people came to see, and Hollywood saw that there was an audience that they didn't know about and used his model. They took out the politics, they took out the music, and made a bunch of films based on what he started." The film was also notable for its topical soundtrack, which introduced the jazz-funk group Earth, Wind and Fire backing Van Peebles's own rapping.
Van Peebles became an instant hero in the African American artistic community. Without compromising his integrity, he had made a Hollywood box office hit and opened doors. "Melvin was our living legend" in the 1970s, wrote Dash in Interview. "He was one of few black directors whose movies were getting released." He inspired an entire generation of black filmmakers, including Spike Lee and John Singleton, whose movies of the 1980s and 1990s owed a debt to Sweetback 's gleeful barrier-smashing.
Did It His Way
Staging benefit concerts for the Black Panthers and making his mark as an independent auteur of the stage and screen, Van Peebles defied every stereotype. While others wore Afros, he sported a ponytail. He launched a parallel career as a spoken word recording artist. In all, he created nine albums, including five solo efforts. His performances were accompanied by suites for violin or cello, free-form pieces Van Peebles often wrote himself.
Many music critics credit him with being a pioneer of rap music, starting with his groundbreaking 1968 recording Brer Soul. A series of rhythmic monologues about urban life, the album was a form of storytelling done to jazz-based soul music and gospel influences. "I found it necessary to invent a style," Van Peebles explained later. "I decided to sublimate the orchestration, to minimize it so people would be forced to concentrate on the words." In another interview, he said: "My music didn't fall into the format of gospel or blues or spirituals, so I did another form that suited the music and story: talk-rapping, which eventually became rap." An interviewer for Motorbooty characterizes Van Peebles's albums as "theatrical vignettes, hysterical monologues, and lyrical soliloquies, all delivered in a gruff, tone-deaf bark that sounds like a drunken, funky uncle."
In whatever endeavor he pursued, Van Peebles always insisted on artistic control. He wrote and staged two Broadway shows, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, in 1971 and Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party, a 1972 Gospel-influenced musical. Van Peebles made Don't Play Us Cheap into a film in 1973, and it won first prize at the Belgian Film Festival.
Ventured in New Directions
Throughout his career, Van Peebles experimented with many forms of expression. In the 1970s, he released the albums As Serious As a Heart Attack and What the ---You Mean I Can't Sing? He helped write the script for the film Greased Lightning, released in 1977. In the late 1970s, Van Peebles wrote scripts for television, including the pilots Sophisticated Gents and Just an Old Sweet Song. In 1984, he wrote and produced the off-Broadway musical The Champeeen.
Van Peebles continued to confound expectations. In the 1980s he made a brief foray into Wall Street and then wrote a successful book about investing and stock market trading, Bold Money.
In 1989, with his son Mario Van Peebles, he directed, produced and co-starred in the film Identity Crisis. The father-son team wrote the book No Identity Crisis to chronicle the making of the film. Van Peebles had roles in such films as True Identity in 1991, Boomerang in 1992, Posse in 1993, Terminal Velocity in 1994, Panther in 1995, and Smut and Time of Her Time in 1999. Panther was based on a novel Van Peebles was writing about the Black Panther Party. At the urging of his son, he turned it into a screenplay, and his son directed the film. Though many critics said it overly romanticized the militant group, American Visions called it a "truly inspirational film that illumines a history that hasn't been taught to young people. "
In 1998, Van Peebles narrated and starred in a documentary film Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X, about the history of images of African Americans in Hollywood films. Shot in video, it was made originally for Euro TV.
His spoken-word recording Cruel Jim Crow (Posse Don't Play That) was included in the soundtrack of Posse. In 1995, Van Peebles made a musical comeback with his first album in 20 years, Ghetto Gothic . Backed by chamber music, Van Peebles spun musical tales based on topical issues like spousal abuse. He also became host of National Public Radio's weekly Blue Stage program. In 1998, he toured with a cabaret show entitled Melvin Van Peebles' Roadkill Wid' Brer Soul.
His collaborations with his son were notable for their uncompromising politics. In 1996, they co-created a made-for-TV movie, Gang In Blue, about a white supremacist police group, in which each man appeared. The film was based on real gangs of racist cops in several American cities. With his son, he produced another made-for-cable-TV movie, Riot, which examined the 1992 Los Angeles riots from four different perspectives.
In 1997, Stephen King produced his own television mini-series based on his book The Shining, and Van Peebles played the psychic hotel cook who befriends a clairvoyant child. In 2000, Van Peebles released Bellyful . Written 30 years earlier, the film was financed in Europe and shot in France. It is about a white French couple who adopt a child at an orphanage, not realizing the child is of mixed racial ancestry.
Whatever the medium, Van Peebles refused to compromise. "People often say I'm brave or insightful, but I'm just ornery," he told Billboard magazine in 1995. "I really do most stuff like I cook: I cook what I like because no one else does it."
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Film Quarterly, Fall 1995.
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Jet, September 23, 1996; July 24, 2000.
People, March 7, 1994; April 28, 1997.
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"Classified X (Melvin Van Peebles)," Film Scouts,http://www.filmscouts.com/scripts/film.cfm?Film=class-x
"Melvin Van Peebles," Film 100http://www.film100.com