Movies Against Whitey! Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Now this is how I wanted to start Black History Month.
Welcome to the MAW – Movies Against Whitey! This segment won’t be confined to just February, as it will be where we look at any Blaxploitation film throughout the year, well, given that this month is a celebration of the African American identity and experience, we’re going to try and make this the focus of the site for the month. [Ain’t that some shit? The Man only sees it fit to give up the shortest month of the year? – Ed.]
So for this first edition of the MAW, it’s only fitting that we take a look at one of the first movies ever to be categorized as Blaxploitation: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Now, depending on who you ask, some will say this is the first such film, while others will point to the Hollywood funded Shaft. Given how movies were released back then, market to market, it’s hard to say. The opening dates provided by Wikipedia actually have Sweetback opening first, on March 31st, 1971, compared to Shaft’s June 25th of the same year. Given their close proximity and again the market to market nature of film exhibition in those days, it’s very possible that in some places Shaft actually opened first, especially since Sweetback, being an independent film, likely traversed from market to market at a slower pace than Shaft. Still, if we go by the Wiki’s chronology, we have to start here, so start here we shall.
Sweetback finds himself in the crosshairs of The Man: first for being falsely accused of a murder he didn’t commit and then by helping out a brother when being beaten by these same crooked ass cops! With no one in the community willing to help due to fear of heat from The Man, ol’ Sweetback is in a race against time to make it to the Mexican border and freedom. They may have bled his momma, they may have bled his poppa, but they ain’t gonna bleed him!
For such a short synopsis, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [SSBS from here on out] has a lot going on. We open with a scene from Sweetback’s childhood, him being fawned over by all the women in the whorehouse he grew up in. There he serves as a towel boy until finally one of the prostitutes takes it upon herself to make him a man, if you know what I mean and I think you do. From here, we fast-forward. Sweetback is now himself a male prostitute working in a sex show while the owner of the joint is jawing with police. You see, there’s been a murder and the cops haven’t been able to find a suspect. Beetle, said owner, brokers a deal where Sweetback will get arrested for the crime and the detectives promise that he’ll be set free after a few days due to lack of evidence. This plan goes awry when the cops are diverted to arrest Black Panther member Mu-Mu and decide that maybe he fell down a few times prior to his arrest. It’s while watching this when Sweetback decides he’s had enough of The Man’s shit, helps a brother out and takes it on the lam. And it’s from this point on that we see the criticisms Van Peebles has not only against the system, but his own community as well. Few are willing to stick their necks out to help Sweetback for fear of drawing the ire of the police down on themselves, like Beetle or his old girlfriend. Some are just as prone to help him as they are to turn him in, like the bikers in the film, simply depending on what kind of mood they’re in. Hell, even the preacher won’t help him in case The Man decides to pull the funds for their drug rehab work.
All of these criticisms are valid, given the central theme of the film is, as Van Peebles put it, “a brother getting The Man’s foot out of his ass” and sadly remain relevant even to this day thanks to continuous reports of racist police activity in this post-George Floyd era. However, the film really doesn’t make it easy in extracting this information. While the constant montages and jump cuts might be jarring to some, this isn’t too terribly out of place for filmmaking during this time. Okay, well, the jump cuts are, but anyone that made it through the MTV heyday or any random Michael Bay film, the rapid cuts will seem normal. Instead, the combination of overwriting at some points, underwriting at others and just plain bad acting (especially most of the white people in this flick) really hinder how the story is conveyed. Heck, in referring to the Wiki page for this review, it actually cleared a few things up for me with regards to the plot! Another problem is the cinematography at times. Many of the night scenes are way too dark where it’s difficult to make out what exactly is happening on screen. Of course, this might simply be due to the DVD copy I had to review from (the Xenon Pictures 30th anniversary release). [There’s a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray disc out there with a full 4K restoration along with a Criterion Collection disc, so yeah, likely the DVD. – Ed.] Still, in some ways, all of this works to the movie’s advantage as the entire 97 minute experience feels very raw. It’s not the level of feeling dirty like I do after every watching of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but you certainly don’t feel right by the time the closing credits roll.
Speaking of raw, let’s get the sex out of the way. There’s a reason why this is rated X, to be sure. Hell, the opening scene is Sweetback losing his virginity in a fairly prolonged scene. Now, I gotta admit, I was surprised to learn that some of these scenes were…ahem…unsimulated. Let’s be clear, you never really see any penetration and, having seen more sex scenes than I care to admit to, many of them are, well, kinda awful. Actually, all of them. They’re pretty bad. They run too long to be functional to the story but at the same time are shot in such a way to be even less arousing than old Swedish educational films on the subject. Granted, this might not be a fair criticism to lay at the film’s feet either as the newly founded porn industry (still considered artsy and avant-garde at this point) hadn’t evolved to where it is today, so the visual language of how to shoot these kind of scenes was still in its infancy. With that being said, you still get plenty of sex here, straight, lesbian (hell, even a strap on) and interracial. Given that one of the advertising slogans for the film was “Rated X…by an all-white jury,” I think we know where Van Peebles stood on the MPAA’s rating. Look, I’m usually more than happy to criticize the MPAA and their ratings goons but…well, with this one, I’ll simply say they weren’t wrong.
All of this being said, you can’t argue with the film’s cultural significance. At the time, giving power to a black protagonist or, hell, even giving a black man the role of protagonist, was pretty rare. Even rarer was a black filmmaker, without Hollywood backing, getting not only to make the film but to get it into theaters. This whole experience had to feel like a major win back in the day, and rightly so! Thus, it will come as no surprise that some of those on the forefront of African American culture help to get this film put together. Although Van Peebles composed the music, it was performed by Earth, Wind and Fire. While not quite the legends they would become, the soundtrack released shortly after their first album and given that it reached 13 on the Billboard R&B charts, one could safely say that it contributed to their upward trajectory. Another contributor, and, given our last review I was surprised to find this one out, was none other than Bill Cosby himself, loaning Van Peebles the final $50,000 needed to finish the film. Of course, given how much sex is in the film…and actually occurring on set…maybe this should be much of a surprise. Seriously though, Cosby’s involvement in the film was strictly financial, not even willing to take any equity or part in the film, simply just wanting to be repaid. As we look back from present day, this is probably for the best, allowing the film to remain relatively untainted.
Ultimately, can I recommend the film? That’s a great question. I’m not sure. Well, okay, if you’re interested in Blaxploitation film, then yes, you need to check this out. You need to see the humble beginnings of the genre. With the bad acting, is it riffable? In other words, is it ‘so bad it’s good’? Not really. Riffing it would seem kinda wrong, even though, oh boy, at times it sure seems to be asking for it. But the overall raw experience the film provides just doesn’t really open itself up well to that. In some ways, I’m not sure I’m qualified to recommend it or not, just given the poor quality of the transfer on the DVD I watched it on. There may be subtle (or not so subtle) visuals that I missed during scenes with very low or poor contrast. Plus, we need to be honest, the sex here isn’t terribly appealing. In the end, I guess I would say that it’s worth watching once for the historic significance, but I can’t say you’ll enjoy the experience. I’ll also confess that I don’t expect many viewers to watch this a second or third time…once will probably be enough. In a lot of ways, that’s fine, because really once is all it takes to make this movie’s point, which, sadly, finds itself at home as much in today’s society as it did back in the 70s.
Historically significant and narratively raw and jarring, this film deserves to be seen once. But with so many flaws bogging it down and likely a very limited appeal for repeat viewing, this film only rises to our middling Plain Cat rating.