Melvin Van Peebles, a groundbreaking actor, writer, director and producer, who was a towering icon in Black cinema and filmmaking in general, has died. He was 89.
Van Peebles was born in 1932 in Chicago, and got his start making short films. He moved on to feature films with 1967’s The Story Of A Three-Day Pass, which signalled his intent to explore issues of racism and diversity with its story of a Black GI who is demoted after daring to have a romance with a white shop clerk while in Paris.
He followed that with 1970’s The Watermelon Man, which starred Godfrey Cambridge as a white bigot who wakes up one morning to discover he’s Black. The Twilight Zone-style morality play explored what it was like to be Black in America at the time.
On the directing front, though, Van Peebles will be remain best known for 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a landmark blaxploitation film that had a limited release, a mixed critical response, but began to spark some serious word of mouth and ended up the highest-grossing indie film at the time.
The writer and director was also notable for his stage work, creating the book, music and lyrics for several successful shows on Broadway, winning two Tony Awards in the process. He also appeared in front of the camera numerous times, including in films by his son, Mario. In addition to his screen and stage work, he was also a novelist and composer.
One of Van Peebles’ notable TV projects was 1981 miniseries The Sophisticated Gents, which starred a young Alfre Woodard and Mario.
It’s his son who issued a statement about Van Peebles’ legacy: “Dad knew that Black images matter,” he wrote. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”