Identity Crisis and Sweetback’s Bellyful of a Three-Day Watermelon Man
As a novelist, memoirist, playwright, musician, composer, actor, editor, director, producer, options trader and icon of Black American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles is a difficult man to pin down. Still active today, he’s most closely associated with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), although this association tends to eclipse his other works and contributions.
Yet Van Peebles is indeed a notable filmmaker, having established himself in the early 1970s. Over the ensuing decades, largely limited to non-cinematic projects, or else marginalized for his maverick sensibility, he has also been a certifiable juggernaut of creative expression in several media and across several industries.
What follows is a career summary meant to encourage a cinephile’s interest precisely because Van Peebles and his art are frequently memorable, over and above the catchphrase, “Watch Out. A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues.”
Honored with the French Legion of Honor in 2001, the 2000 Acapulco Black Film Festival’s Best International Film Award for Le Conte du ventre plein (aka Bellyful, 2000), the 1999 Chicago Underground Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1987 Children’s Live-Action Humanitas Prize for The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, a 1972 Tony Award nomination for “Don’t Play Us Cheap”, two 1971 Tony Award nominations for “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”, along with a Grammy Award nomination and Drama Desk Award for this earlier musical, Melvin Van Peebles is more than a one-note film director.
Born Melvin Peebles on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois, he grew up during World War II and attended Township High School in Phoenix, Illinois, where he graduated in 1949. After a transitional year at West Virginia State College, he then transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature in 1953.
Enlisting in the US Air Force, he met his future wife, Maria Marx, a White woman, in 1955. The two were married and after three and a half years he left the military for Mexico. While there he dabbled as a painter, became a father and eventually moved to San Francisco where he worked as a cable car operator.
Stricken with varied creative interests, he produced a few short films, including Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957) and Sunlight (1957). He also wrote the text to a children’s book called The Big Heart (1957) and pitched himself to Hollywood talent agents but failed to make a connection.
Frustrated by his prospects, he was fired from his job, after which he capitalized on the GI Bill and moved his family—then consisting of wife Maria, son Mario and daughter Megan—to Holland in 1959. He enrolled at the University of Amsterdam to study astronomy, added the qualifier “Van” to his name and continued pursuing creative projects in terms now called “workaholic.”
Perhaps due to his ambitions, absenteeism or rumors of infidelity, the couple divorced. Maria returned to the States with Mario and Megan, and Melvin joined the Dutch National Theater where he began acting in earnest. To make ends meet he worked as a street performer and sometimes depended on lady friends for a place to live.
Eventually Henry Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, saw Van Peebles’s short films and invited him to Paris where he spent the next several years singing, dancing, acting and writing the novels A Bear for the FBI, The Chinamen of the 14th District, The Party in Harlem and La Permission. Among odd jobs, he edited comic sequences in the French edition of Mad magazine and produced the Francophone short Cinq cent balles (1963).
Learning he could adapt one of his novels into film with a $60,000 grant from the French Cinema Center, so long as his film was “artistically valuable, but not necessarily commercially viable,” (1) he sought a producer. Once partnered with the Office de Production d’Edition et de Realisation (OPERA), a collective consisting of Michel Zemer, Guy Pefond and Christian Shivat, he shot La Permission in 36 days for a cost of $200,000, finally releasing the picture under the title The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967). (2)
It tells the story of Turner (Harry Baird), a Black army man who meets a White Parisian named Miriam (Nicole Berger). The pair spends a weekend together, enjoying their romance but also struggling with the complexities of racism. Eventually their miscegenation is reported to Turner’s Captain (Hal Brav) and he’s restricted to barracks where he realizes the futility of such amorous adventures.
The Story of a Three-Day Pass departs from generic convention by focusing on a Black hero and embracing New Wave-inspired realist techniques alongside fantasy sequences. Using jump cuts, freeze frames, photomontage and the conceit of interracial predation, The Story of a Three-Day Pass contains the seeds of Van Peebles’s later pursuits. Beyond these experimental techniques, though, the writer-director created a relatively polished and enjoyable love story. Entered as a French film in the 1967 San Francisco Festival organized by Black film critic Albert Johnson, The Story of a Three-Day Pass allowed Van Peebles to work his way into the Hollywood fold.
Contracted with Columbia Pictures he was given a farce. Based on a Herman Raucher script and produced under the working title The Night the Sun Came Out on Happy Hollow Lane, Van Peebles scored and directed the film, finally called Watermelon Man (1970). Shot in 22 days and released with a budget just under $1,000,000 (3) it’s the story of a bigoted, White insurance executive named Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge). One day he wakes up a Black man and has a number of misadventures before finally embracing his new identity and transforming into a militant revolutionary.
Released in a moment of growing racial unrest and conflict in the United States, Watermelon Man mixes serio-comic elements with topical material. Significantly, Cambridge offers an appealing performance that complicates the usual process of identification for mainstream—read White—viewers since he’s a Black man made up in White face before “waking up” to become himself, a Black man.
When given Hollywood’s financial troubles during the late 1960s and early ’70s, Watermelon Man was a troublesome project. Infighting between Columbia’s executives and Van Peebles was commonplace. After much wrangling over an appropriate ending, in which Van Peebles ultimately triumphed, the film was released to a domestic theatrical gross of $1,568,315, ranking it as the 56th most popular film of 1970, well behind the number one title, Airport (George Seaton and Henry Hathaway) with a gross of $12,378,259. (4)
In this sophomore effort, certain stylistic choices from his debut are repeated, including jump cuts and visual counter-point, along with the introduction of filters for melodramatic impact. Altogether these stylistic choices point in the direction of an alternative, non-Hollywood form while also organizing an extremely entertaining, provocative feature.
Van Peebles used his salary from Watermelon Man to fund 19 days of production on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in late 1970. Budgeted at $500,000 and, at one point, now famously infused with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, Van Peebles wrote, directed, co-produced, scored, edited and starred in his most famous movie.
He hired non-union labor and took on the marketing responsibilities himself. He also released the film through Cinemation, a struggling exploitation distributor, and put his limited marketing budget into radio advertisements targeting Black audiences. After an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Van Peebles threatened lawsuits against the MPAA but turned the negative rating into a publicity coup. Using the catchphrase, “rated X by an all-white jury,” he redesigned the film’s advertisements and boosted the film’s many ancillary markets.
Released to simultaneous acclaim and disdain in both the Black and White communities, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song temporarily took over the top box office position from the year’s number one grossing film, the $50 million earning Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970). It also went on to gross $4.1 million, (5) along with producing certain symbols and stock characters that would be central to Black imagery through the present.
As discussed elsewhere by critics like Donald Bogle, Thomas Cripps and Ed Guerrero, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song appeared at the cusp of Blaxploitation. Ignoring other influential movies like Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971), what Van Peebles’s film conveyed was the interest and viability of Black cultural products independently produced by, and for, a primarily Black audience. In 1971 he’d managed to attune his filmmaker’s heartstrings to the pulse of his times. Foremost among his goals was the repudiation of accepted mainstream standards about representing Black people.
Lacking narrative polish, the expertise of professional actors and production staff, or the groupthink of a corporate publicity department, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song remains a challenging, difficult film. Its success stems from an insider view of Black experience. Its failures likewise stem from centering on a criminal with few redeeming qualities.
Beyond producing a hit movie, Van Peebles’s great innovation was recognizing the economic impetus supporting the movie industry. Thusly he targeted an under-realized Black audience and reaped a small fortune. That Hollywood paid attention adds to the commonly held belief about how Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was then divided from its political ideals to have its stoic lead, popular music, underworld surroundings and sexual situations exported into Blaxploitation.
However true these correlations may seem, the film didn’t entirely manage to turn the film industry on its ear. Though annual grosses demonstrate how it was influential in 1971, its larger legacy is in demonstrating artistic ingenuity from a non-mainstream source.
Perhaps due to this independently minded success, or perhaps due to his theatrical pursuits immediately following Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Van Peebles didn’t direct another original feature for almost 18 years. Turning to the Great White Way, he produced two Broadway musicals, “Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” the latter becoming a virtually unseen fourth feature film adaptation in 1973.
“Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” was a commercial disappointment. By contrast, it was also critically lauded and eventually nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Book and Score for Van Peebles, not to overlook his Grammy Award nomination and Drama Desk Award.
“Don’t Play Us Cheap,” adapted from his novel The Party in Harlem, exacerbated the troubled box office record of its predecessor but was similarly celebrated for its fantasy elements. Centered on a pair of the devil’s minions crashing a boisterous Harlem house party, the musical opened later in the same season as “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” meaning both shows were on Broadway in simultaneous runs. As a crowning accomplishment, “Don’t Play Us Cheap” was itself nominated for two Tony Awards, including another Best Book nod for Van Peebles.
Thereafter he was associated with a number of theatrical productions ranging from cabarets and one-man shows to ensemble dramas and musicals. One result was the play “Out There By Your Lonesome” in 1973. At the same time he was actively promoting his behind the scenes book The Making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song while also recording several musical and spoken work albums, among them “What the…You Mean I Can’t Sing?” and “X-Rate by an All-White Jury.” A new novel called The True American followed in 1976, after which Van Peebles produced the screenplay for Just an Old Sweet Song, a television movie.
Throughout the mid-’70s, trade papers reported his attachment to different feature films, although little came of insubstantial rumor. By 1977, however, his Tinsel Town connections seemed poised for renewal after he’d written the script for Greased Lightening, a Richard Pryor vehicle. Part way through production, however, he quit and was replaced by Michael Schultz.
Perpetually at odds over being given secure financing and being allowed the freedom to pursue his craft, Van Peebles’s relationship with Hollywood continued to stumble along. Still he worked as an actor and occasionally wrote teleplays. The Sophisticated Gents (Harry Falk, 1981) was one such work in which a group of Black professionals meet for a 25-year school reunion and grapple with the changing virtues and faults of their aging selves even as a murder is committed in their midst.
Two plays later, “Waltz of the Stork” in 1981 and “Champeen” in 1983, a lost bet changed the focus of the artist’s activities for much the 1980s. Given his wide social network, he was assisted into the securities industry where he became the first Black American to hold a seat on the American Stock Exchange. Associated as a trader with Timber Hill, Inc., he was successful in his new pursuit trading stock options and managing fortunes on a daily basis.
Returning to his literary foundations, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market was the result of applying the new profession to his much older craft. As an explanation of how to use discretionary funds to invest in more volatile positions than are possible in fixed income products like Treasury Bills and CDs, the book was an application of lessons learned in film financing turned to the high yield potential of stock derivatives. Which is to say Van Peebles wrote about using money within the prescribed system to achieve personal satisfaction.
Throughout the ’80s he continued guest starring in films and TV shows, frequently with his son Mario, and it’s been this collaborative element that has sustained him through the present. Identity Crisis (1989), his fifth feature as director, was a product of father and son working together. Starring Mario as a body-switching gay hairdresser who enters the body of a b-boy, the film fell flat with audience and critics alike, all of whom were aware of a late ’80s body-switching cycle of films for which Identity Crisis provided an unpleasant exclamation point.
A more positive result of this experience was a memoir he co-wrote with his son. Entitled No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son’s Story of Working Together, the book saw Melvin reflect on his relatively difficult struggle for success set against Mario’s more privileged upbringing as a mixed-race child, Ivy league graduate and one time employee of New York City’s mayor, Ed Koch.
As Mario’s career took off following his film New Jack City (1991), Melvin’s career became more and more associated with supporting his son’s projects. A novel he’d written called Panther became the basis for his eponymous script and Mario’s movie in 1995. Though drawn from historical events and based on the lives of members of the Black Panther Party, the result was lambasted by critics and ignored at the box office.
Closing on the age of traditional retirement at the end of the twentieth century, Van Peebles has been persuaded to accept the mantle of cultural icon. With home video technologies ceding market share to feature-rich laser discs and DVDs, and with the rise of the hip hop generation reared on cultural products like various of Van Peebles’s creations, the man has become a living symbol and keynote of his times.
Based on a wide-ranging body of work, Melvin Van Peebles is generally concerned with Black empowerment and economic control within the White-dominated American system. But history remembers him almost exclusively as the director of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and this tendency is both habitual and troubling. It suggests a great man theory with limited context while continuing to make his third film the birthplace for Blaxploitation, thus minimizing re-consideration of its influence or of the cycle considered to be its result.
This tendency is likely related to the controversy surrounding Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the other films released in its wake. The tendency may also have something to do with the backlash against Van Peebles for having the audacity to write, direct, co-produce, score, edit and star in a film that deeply inflamed its viewers but was never followed up with the same measure of influence by any of his subsequent projects.
Regardless, Van Peebles’s collected works remain for us to categorize, embrace or reject. As just one illustration of an effort to do exactly that, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) sponsored a retrospective of his films in June 1990. Though 13 years have passed since this institutional benchmark, he continues to perform on-stage, on television and in the movies, while his son has seen his star rise with a career organized in very similar fashion to that of his father.
Now a character type all his own, he continues to be a cigar-smoking curmudgeon dedicated “to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the man.” In short, Van Peebles is a maverick spirit and multi-talented creative force, the likes of whom are not often seen.
Pickup Men for Herrick (short, 1957) also writer and composer
Sunlight (short, 1957) also writer, composer and producer
Cinq cent balles (short, 1963) also writer and composer
The Story of a Three-Day Pass (also known as La Permission, 1967) also writer, from his novel La Permission, and composer
Watermelon Man (1970) also composer
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) also actor, writer, composer, co-producer and editor
Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973) also writer, from his book Harlem Party and stage musical Don’t Play Us Cheap, and composer
Identity Crisis (1989) also actor, producer and editor
Vroom Vroom Vroooom (segment from Tales of Erotica, also known as Erotic Tales, 1996) also writer, composer, producer and editor
Gang in Blue (1996) co-director, actor and producer
Le Conte du ventre plein (also known as Bellyful, 2000) also writer, composer and delegate producer
Just an Old Sweet Song (also known as Down Home, Robert Ellis Miller, 1976) made for television; screenwriter and theme song
Greased Lightning (Michael Schultz, 1977) screenwriter
The Sophisticated Gents (Harry Falk, 1981) made for television; actor, screenwriter, song “Greased Lightning” and producer
The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (Gilbert Moses, 1987) made for television; screenwriter
Jaws: The Revenge (Joseph Sargent, 1987) actor
Sonny Spoon (1988) television series; actor
Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1993) actor
Panther (Mario Van Peebles, 1995) based on his novel Panther, screenwriter, actor and producer
The Shining (Mick Garris, 1997) television movie; actor
Melvin Van Peebles’ Classified X (Mark Daniels, 1998) documentary; screenwriter, actor and executive producer)
The Hebrew Hammer (Jonathan Kesselman, 2003) actor
Abeke, “Van Peebles On The Inside,” Essence, June 1973, p. 4
Lerone Bennett Jr., “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland,” Ebony, September 1971, pp. 106-108, cont. 110, 112, 114, 116, 118
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 3rd Edition, New York, Continuum, 2000
Garrett Chaffin-Quiray, “’You Bled My Mother, You Bled My Father, But You Won’t Bleed Me’ – The Underground Trio of Melvin Van Peebles” in Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider (eds.), Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, Wallflower Press, London, 2002, pp. 96-108
Thomas Cripps, Black Film as Genre, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1979
Cynthia Gillespie, “Watermelon Man,” Entertainment World, May 29, 1970, p. 23
Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993
Mel Gussow, “The Baadasssss Success of Melvin Van Peebles,” The New York Times Magazine, August 20, 1972, pp. 14-15, cont. 86-91
Karen Jaehne, “Melvin Van Peebles: the Baadasssss Gent,” Cineaste, vol. 18 no. 1, October 1990, pp. 4-8
Joe Klein, “Sweet Sweetback’s Wall Street Song,” New York, September 5, 1983, pp. 42-43
Charles D. Peavy, “An Afro-American in Paris: The Films of Melvin Van Peebles,” Cineaste, vol. III, no. 1, Summer 1969, pp. 2-3, cont. 31
Rick Setlowe, “Saga of Negro Director,” Daily Variety, December 13, 1967, p. 7, cont. 25
Melvin Van Peebles, The Big Heart (unknown publisher, 1957)
Melvin Van Peebles, A Bear for the FBI (unknown publisher or year)
Melvin Van Peebles, The Chinamen of the 14th District (unknown publisher or year)
Melvin Van Peebles, The Party in Harlem (unknown publisher or year)
Melvin Van Peebles, La Permission (unknown publisher or year)
Melvin Van Peebles, The Making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, New York, Lancer Books, 1972
Melvin Van Peebles, The True American, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1976
Melvin Van Peebles, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market, New York, Warner Books, 1986
Melvin Van Peebles, No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son’s Story of Working Together, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990
Melvin Van Peebles, Panther, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1995
“Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death” (1971)
“Don’t Play Us Cheap” (1972)
“Out There By Your Lonesome” (1973)
“Waltz of the Stork” (1981)
“Brer Soul” (year unknown)
“Harlem Party” (year unknown)
“What the…You Mean I Can’t Sing?” (year unknown)
“X-Rate by an All-White Jury” (year unknown)
Compiled by author
A brief snapshot of Van Peebles, all of which is included above.
Internet Movie Database profile
This is a treasury of references to begin piecing together connections and contributions.
Soul Flicks essay on Blaxploitation
Extremely uncritical but illustrated overview of the 1970s that easy to navigate and enjoy.
Click here to search for Melvin Van Peebles DVDs, videos and books at
- Charles D. Peavy, “An Afro-American in Paris: The Films of Melvin Van Peebles,” Cineaste, vol. III, no. 1, Summer 1969, p. 2
- Rick Setlowe, “Saga of Negro Director,” Daily Variety, December 13, 1967, p. 7
- Cynthia Gillespie, “Watermelon Man,” Entertainment World, May 29, 1970, p. 23
- Syd Silverman, Variety, “330 Films Above $100,000 Rentals [In U.S. During 1970],” Variety, May 12, 1971, p. 34
- Variety, “Big Rental Films of 1971,” January 5, 1972, p. 9