Melvin Van Peebles, multitalented 'godfather of modern Black cinema,' dies at 89

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Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles Francois Durand/Getty Images

Melvin Van Peebles, the trailblazing independent filmmaker, composer, musician, playwright, author, and Wall Street options trader, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan, his family announced Wednesday. He was 89.

"Dad knew that Black images matter," actor-director Mario Van Peebles said in a statement. "We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free."

Van Peebles, sometimes called the "godfather of modern Black cinema," is best known for 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which The Associated Press describes as a "frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary." He wrote, directed, financed, starred in, and wrote the soundtrack for the groundbreaking film, all for about $500,000. It originally played at just two Black theaters, but its success led to wider distribution and it eventually hauled in $14 million, making it one of the most lucrative independent films ever, despite its X rating.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song's success got Hollywood's attention, and, to Van Peeble's annoyance, spawned films like Shaft, Suprefly, and Foxy Brown, "What Hollywood did — they suppressed the political message, added caricature — and blaxploitation was born," he said in 2002.

Melvin Peebles was born in Chicago's South Side in 1932, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953, and went into the Air Force, where he served as a flight navigator. After the Air Force, he was a portrait painter in Mexico and then a trolley operator in San Francisco. He moved his family to the Netherlands — where he added Van, his middle name, to his last name — to study astronomy on the G.I. Bill, and when his marriage and finances fell apart, he moved to Paris alone.

In Paris, he discovered the French government would give him a director's card and stipend if he adapted his own work in French, so he taught himself the language and made waves in France and the U.S. with his film La Permission/The Story of the Three Day Pass.

After Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Van Peebles went on to write two Tony-nominated Broadway musicals — Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) and Don't Play Us Cheap! (1972) — and won an Emmy for writing a CBS children's special in 1987.

Van Peebles is survived by his sons Mario and Max, daughter Marguerite, and 11 grandchildren. His daughter Megan Van Peebles died in 2006.

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