Before Spike Lee, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, the Hughes brothers, the Wayans clan, F. Gary Gray and Tyler Perry-there was and still is Melvin Van Peebles. When it was confirmed that I would be interviewing Mr. Van Peebles, my hands began to sweat. What in the world could a fledgling writer asked this seasoned man? Excuse me, this genius… Icon? What questions could I possibly ask Melvin Van Peebles that he hasn’t been asked before? I mean the man is 80-years old.
He’s lived in Paris, Chicago, Mexico and the Big Apple. He speaks French, Spanish, and Dutch and studied Astronomy at the University of Holland. In addition to all these great talents, Melvin Van Peebles is a world renowned filmmaker, honored with The Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest honor for the arts, painter, sculptor, composer, innovator, philanthropist and the originator of rap. Yes- Melvin Van Peebles or MVP as his close friends call him is ALL of that and then some.
Just in case you’re wondering, why am I interviewing Melvin Van Peebles? What has he done lately? The question instead,should really be ‘What is Melvin Van Peebles not doing?’ Melvin is like the sun. Even when you don’t see him, he’s still shining. The man is mentoring and teaching future filmmakers here and abroad. He is still creating, writing stories and does a show, called Melvin Van Peebles Wid Laxative (because MVP don’t take no shit).
In this production, MVP sings original songs, tells stories the way only he can, and just has himself a good o’l time. He’s backed by the fellas from Burnt Sugar, carries with him on stage a giant book that looks like a bible from a distance… and he does the zampougie!
I arrived at Mr. Van Peebles’ place late, scared and embarrassed. But the show must go on. I prepared 21 questions to ask him. They were cheeky, well researched and to the point. At least I thought so. I couldn’t find my words- “HELLO! YOU ARE SITTING AND SPEAKING TO THE MELVIN VAN PEEBLES!” was all I could hear in my head. “GET IT TOGETHER MADAFI AND ASK YOUR DAMN QUESTIONS!” I ask the first question, the second, then the third, and upon asking the question after that- my lesson began. Melvin Van Peebles is the truth, tells the truth and sometimes naughty jokes. At times it may be a little hard to decipher when he’s serious or not, but if you really listen, you’ll catch it.
‘What inspired you to be a filmmaker?’ “Hunger.” “Hunger?” I asked. His response seemed too simple for me. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he was serious. Millions of people around the world know who and what Melvin Van Peebles has done. Yet, millions more don’t know the beginning of his story. When Melvin was a young boy, he and his friends would go to the NRA Movie Theatre in Southside Chicago (also known as the National Rat Alley Movie Theatre to the kids), and watch all types of movies. But the Black films touched him a little bit more than the others. The characters, the dialogue and the plots annoyed young Melvin.
DO – OVER
As my interview continued, I committed the first sin of journalism: Thou shall not interrupt your subject. I know better. Yet, something came over me and I lost myself. And like a good sansei, Melvin Van Peebles put me in check, or as we say down south, read me my rights. “Look, you’re a smart girl. Don’t ask me trivial questions. Ask me questions with meat.” The last thing you want to hear as a writer is that your questions are trivial. Still, truth be told, maybe that’s exactly what I needed to hear. The zing I felt from that statement hurt and I wanted to redeem myself. Discussing and learning from Melvin Van Peebles was achance of a lifetime. “Can we start over Mr. Van Peebles?” “Yes.” And so I did.
He said to ask questions with meat. Ask questions where which the answers could really teach the reader (that would be you) something new. Once again my nerves started to act up, but I stepped over them and asked the question I’ve had ever since I saw Sweet Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song for the first time. “How did you make it happen? I mean, how did you really make this movie happen? ” Melvin sat back in his chair, took the cigar stump out of his mouth and looked at me.
Before Sweet Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song, Melvin Van Peebles made a movie in France called La Permission. Sweetback… was his third feature film. It was shown in only two theatres at its release, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta. Melvin Van Peebles is so bad, that when the cinemas suggested that Sweetback… be run as a double feature, Mr. Van Peebles said absolutely not. He knew what he had.
Sweet Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song is definitely not your typical action or drama film, and certainly not in the style of the Blaxpoitation movies of that time. This movie is what connoisseurs of film would call an Art House film. Melvin Van Peebles and Sweet Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song did something Black films at the time had never done before. He literally did everything. He wrote the screenplay, directed, edited it and wrote the score for it- all using his own money.
Sweetback… also gave the main character, who was a person of color- power. Not some power, not make believe power, but the real thing. Mr. Van Peebles made power moves in Hollywood that Black filmmakers had never done before. Perhaps it was his destiny to have the initials M.V.P.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be Melvin Van Peebles. That’s why his fans, family and friends love him so much. They’ve all recognized that this man has been and is about something. He is not one of those artists who will bow out gracefully and work on a project just because the pockets are tight. No, Melvin Van Peebles has been kicking, screaming, laughing, loving, teaching and sharing for far too long to go out quietly. And quiet frankly, we won’t let him. We love him too much. He’s worth much more than gold and diamonds put together. Melvin Van Peebles is more valuable than any pair of sneakers or headphones. He is the icon, the myth and the legend… and he knows it.
Written by: Madafi Pierre