Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Review
“Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality” (Traditional Prologue to the Dark Age)
So begins Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, with a quote which lays bare its director’s intentions: he’s telling it as it is, or rather as he sees it. And what of the ‘Dark Age’ reference, is this a purposeful one? A comment on black experience and black cinema thus far? Indeed, Sweetback kickstarted the blaxploitation movement and has proven a formidable influence, yet it’s also a deeply personal work. It’s experimental, underground and truly independent; it may deal in the common cinematic currency of sex and violence, but it’s not genre filmmaking nor is it exploitation. Rather it is a true one-off, a film quite unlike anything else. Even Van Peebles has never come close to replicating its approach or effect, despite continual promises of a sequel or two.
Sweetback takes its energy from two sources: its director’s fierce anger and the score as performed by Earth, Wind and Fire. As with their soul-jazz-funk hybrid, it’s a freeform concoction which works in terms of riffs and rhythms, repetitions and reprises. Thus we arrive at a mood piece (and, cinematically speaking, a new mood at that) not a strict example of narrative cinema. In fact, it could be described as a prolonged piece of anti-cinema. Essentially, Sweetback follows Van Peebles’ character of the same name as he moves from performer in bizarre, gritty sex shows to a cop killer on the run. From hereon in the film becomes an approximation of the chase movie, the key difference being that it doesn’t bow to the conventions of the form: there’s no comeuppance, no real sense of progression and certainly no narrative arc. Rather it occupies a limbic region of tremendous visceral power.
The political ramifications of such an approach are abundantly clear: Van Peebles is calling for an end to the Hollywood representation of blacks as typified by a Butterfly McQueen or a Sidney Poitier. Yet viewing Sweetback purely in cinematic terms, it proves equally as punchy. Artfully constructed, albeit with rough edges intact (don’t forget that it was filmed in just 19 days and with a crew more used to porno productions), it alternately numbs and dazzles its audience into a submissive groove. Set piece after set piece arrive, of either sexual or violent bent, each told through an array of styles, from documentary to psychedelia, split screens to freeze frames, jump cuts to a breaking of the fourth wall.
Indeed, it’s impossible to view Sweetback in conventional terms. The cops aren’t merely cops, but must be seen in symbolic terms, hence the deliberately hard boiled dialogue and strict adherence to archetypes. We’re not expected to view them as people or even characters, but rather representations. Likewise Sweetback himself works in an illusory fashion: the cowboy hat and stoic quality allow us to make dozens of subconscious reference points as to his function as hero, yet at the same time he operates as a blank slate. There’s a blankness to him, his own experiences – and means of expression – being violence and, in his own words, “fucking”. In contrast with the first films to intelligently deal with the black British experience (such as Pressure and Burning an Illusion, also available from the BFI), Sweetback doesn’t go on a learning curve towards militancy, but is far more direct in his actions and consequently the film attains a much greater urgency. As such, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song may very create a divide in its audience, yet there can be no denying the distinctive voice behind its creation or indeed the sheer conviction with which it has been made.
Given Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s status as a truly independent feature, we shouldn’t expect too much from its presentation. It was shot on both 16mm and 35mm film stock, over a very quick period of time (during extremely long shooting days) and with what was essentially a non-professional crew. As such the quality veers wildly throughout, some shots displaying excessive grain and damage, whilst others offer pristine clarity. Indeed, the BFI really can’t be faulted in this respect as all such defects are inherent in the original materials. What they do give us is the film in its original aspect ratio and they certainly haven’t made its presentation any worse – compared to my previous experiences of the film courtesy of a late night screening on Channel Four in the mid-nineties and an old pre-cert video cassette, the presentation here was something of a revelation. Or at least it would be had the transfer not been an NTSC-PAL conversation thereby prompting ghosting and colours which are perhaps a touch too saturated, though again owing to original materials it is difficult to determine quite how much of an effect this has.
As for the soundtrack, this is particularly fine. Present in its original mono recording, the sound design can at last be truly appreciated, especially during the scene in which an acquaintance of Sweetback is deafened by gunshots. Of course, it too suffers from the low-budget and restricted shooting schedule, though this only serves to make the presence of optional English subtitles all the more welcome.
As for extras, the major addition is a short featurette directed by Van Peebles entitled ‘The Real Deal (What it is…)’. In all honesty, this is an incredibly odd piece and hardly comparable to your standard EPK. Rather we see Van Peebles take a shit on a piece of Parisian wasteland, recreate the opening sequence with his “secretary” and inform us that he received compensation from the Director’s Guild of America when he caught gonorrhoea filming one of the sex scenes. In other words, it’s hugely entertaining and welcome respite from the usual featurettes which clog up so many discs. (This piece also comes with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.)
Elsewhere, the disc also provides an informative bio for the director, plus an eight-page booklet offering complete credits, two reprinted essays on the film and new liner notes by Kodwo Eshun.
Please note that in order to comply with UK law (the Protection of Children Act 1978), a number of images - totalling one minute and 15 seconds worth of screentime - have been obscured at the director's wishes using a blank screen. The soundtrack, however, remains unaltered.
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