Making what you want to see

On Saturday I went to the Melvin Van Peebles double feature at Film Forum.

How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a new documentary on the filmmaker/author/musician/Wall Street trader, was so fascinating I only spent 5% of the time worrying that bedbugs were making their way into my garments. (Cf. 92% at the viewing of the last Star Wars movie.)

As a boy, Van Peebles sold abandoned dry cleaning for his father. His dad kicked his ass if he didn’t come home with enough money; the other kids kicked his ass, and took the clothes, if he asked for too much. He says this childhood bartering was the best possible preparation for negotiating with studio executives.

When he got Hollywood’s attention — after moving to Paris, teaching himself French, and establishing himself in France as a writer and director — Van Peebles refused to give the executives what they were looking for: more stories about black men in pain.

He tricked the studio into letting him make Watermelon Man with the ending he wanted (the white insurance guy who wakes up black one morning doesn’t change back). And with his profits from that, he financed the original black power film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Sweet Sweetback rocked the box office but ensured that Hollywood would steal and pervert Van Peebles’ ideas instead of backing him to make more movies.

Not only did he refuse to put out the cookie-cutter stories the studio execs wanted, but he says he was driven to filmmmaking more by frustration than inspiration — “I didn’t see the type of things I wanted to see, so I made them myself.”


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