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Iconic auteur and Black cinema pioneer, Melvin Van Peebles, has passed away

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

The world has lost one of its most prolific renaissance men. Melvin Van Peebles has died at 89 years of age.

The novelist, artist, investigative journalist, musician, director, playwright, Wall Street stock options trader, and son of a tailor was born on August 21, 1932 in Chicago. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a degree in English literature. After college, Van Peebles served for three years in the Air Force as a navigator-bombardier. As he struggled to break into film, Van Peebles briefly studied acting and astronomy in the Netherlands. He is also the father of famed actor-director Mario Van Peebles.

Van Peebles' life was unmistakably that of a "renaissance man." In addition to his work as a prolific creative, he did investigative journalism for France Observateur and also wrote regularly for the anti-authoritarian humor magazine Hara-kiri. The multi-talented Melvin Van Peebles had four shows on Broadway, the first of which was “Ain’t Suppose to Die a Natural Death.” Van Peebles wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show and it ran for a total of 325 performances in 1971-72. For his work on the musical, Van Peebles was nominated for a Tony Award. "Ain't Suppose to Die a Natural Death" is scheduled to return to Broadway in 2022.

The multi-hyphenate also won a Daytime Emmy in 1987 in the category of "Outstanding Writing in a Children's Special," for his work on CBS's, "The Day They Came to Arrest the Books.”

Despite his many worthy accolades, Van Peebles, is most well known for his independently financed and released film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), which he wrote, directed, co-produced, edited, scored, and starred in as the title character. The work is largely responsible for Van Peebles' recognition as the "Godfather of (modern) Black Cinema." When the movie was released, Van Peebles told the press that Sweetback was dedicated to “all of the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man.”

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” said Mario Van Peebles in a statement announcing his father's transition. “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.”

Many film critics argue that, alongside Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), Sweet Sweetback introduced the public to the Blaxploitation film genre. Van Peebles shot the movie over 19 days on a budget of $500,000—no Hollywood studios would finance him. When money for the production began to dry up, Bill Cosby gave Van Peebles a personal loan of $50,000 to complete the film. The soundtrack, featuring Earth, Wind, and Fire, was released prior to the film's theatrical debut in an effort to generate public interest. It worked. Sweet Sweetback went on to gross $15.2 million at the box office despite being rated-X and banned from many theaters. Van Peebles and his team capitalized on the censorship by creating the ad tagline, "Rated X by an all-white jury." In an article written shortly after Sweetback was released, The New York Times described Van Peebles as, "the first Black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game."

Criterion Films holds several of Van Peebles' films in its Criterion Collection and released a joint statement with the Van Peebles family announcing the creator's death.

“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” read the statement..

After the announcement of his passing, praise for Van Peebles and his work began to pour in from fans, colleagues, and admirers worldwide. Award-winning director Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight and Dear White People fame, shared a particularly poignant snapshot of Van Peebles in a remembrance tweet, saying “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED."

In addition to son Mario, Melvin is survived by son Max Van Peebles, daughter Marguerite, and grandchildren. His daughter Megan preceded him in death.



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