Melvin Van Peebles, Champion of New Black Cinema, Dies at 89

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By Douglas Martin, The New York Times


Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker praised as the godfather of modern Black cinema and a trailblazer in American independent movies, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89….

The filmmaker, author and actor Melvin Van Peebles in his apartment in Manhattan in 2010. In his work he spoke out of an “undeniable Black consciousness,” one critic wrote. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

A Renaissance man whose work spanned books, theater and music, Mr. Van Peebles is best known for his third feature film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which drew mixed reviews when it was released in 1971, ignited intense debate and became a national hit. The hero, Sweetback, starred in a sex show at a brothel, and the movie sizzled with explosive violence, explicit sex and righteous antagonism toward the white power structure. It was dedicated to “all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man.”

Mr. Van Peebles’s fiercely independent legacy can be seen in some of the most notable Black films of the past half-century, from Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) to Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” (2016). His death arrives at a moment when Black storytelling has belatedly become ascendant in Hollywood.

“I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” he told The New York Times in 2010, when asked about his reputation and influence. “I do what I want to do.”

Not only did Mr. Van Peebles write, direct and score “Sweet Sweetback’s” and play the lead role; he also raised the money to produce it. The film demonstrated that a Black director could convey a highly personal vision to a broad audience. “For the first time in cinematic history in America, a movie speaks out of an undeniable Black consciousness,” Sam Washington wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times.

In addition to making movies, Mr. Van Peebles published novels, in French as well as in English; wrote two Broadway musicals and produced them simultaneously; and wrote and performed spoken-word albums that many have called forebears of rap.

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