What you need to know about Melvin Van Peebles


The Art House Beat: Confessions of an Ex-Doofus ItchyFooted Mutha

Post Globe film reviewer

Melvin Van Peebles brings his new movie to the NWWF, where he will teach a master class on film-making. He will also read at Bumbershoot’s Literary Stage on Sunday.

To say Melvin Van Peebles invented black cinema would be disrespectful to the pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux who came before him. But I’m going to say it anyway. For all Micheaux’s contributions, from his battles against the stereotyping of black characters to his introduction of Paul Robeson to the movie-going public, he worked within the confines of the white film industry. Van Peebles left that world after his first Hollywood feature, “Watermelon Man,” to become an industry of one with 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Now, 38 years later, his new picture, “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus Itchyfooted Mutha” (Sept. 8-14 at the Northwest Film Forum), mashes up the screen with only one significant credit: Written composed, directed, edited/painted, and produced by MELVIN VAN PEEBLES.

That black panther who ran from one end of “Sweetback” to the other is still running. This time, he’s not running from the man, but from his hometown Chicago, his sweet woman Rita, and finally from African slavers who have got him working in the mineral mines. In the beginning, with Peebles playing a fourteen year old runaway, the story seems like autobiography, but by the time he defeats pirates on the high seas, it feels less like personal history and more like a tall tale.

When Micheaux debunked the racism of “Birth of a Nation,” he still spoke in the language of D.W. Gritffith. Peebles, on the other hand, found a new cinematic language for his attack on mid-century racism. Sweetback’s run was no Keystone Kops car chase; it was a wild improvisation ala Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Just as he edited that film to the rhythms of jazz, his new film snaps to the crackle of hip-hop. Even the grooves of the dialog track occasionally get crushed. But it is not just the style that is unique; it is the worldview. Peebles is not reflecting somebody else’s reality on the screen. He is using the screen to create his own reality. Art has historically been the province of such individuals, who devise the means to organize the material of their own consciousness in such a way that it may be experienced by those having no familiarity with it. Many have communicated the African-American experience to those outside of it through music, art, and drama, but few have succeeded in such a direct way, without using the accepted templates of their times.

“Sweetback” inspired other African-American film-makers, such as Jamaa Fanaka ( Emma Mae), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), to create new forms through which to tell their stories. It was no longer enough to repeat an Arthur Miller play with black characters. The play itself had to change. For the first half of his career, August Wilson succeeded in this triumphantly. After moving to Seattle, which ended his collaboration with director Lloyd Richards, his work lost its vitality and became subscription bait for a nondescript regional theater company. But those first plays: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “Two Trains Running,” rang clearly with a new and honest voice while the rest of the American theater followed Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and David Mamet to its death.

Unlike August Wilson, Peebles did not become part of the compromised mainstream, but continued to re-invent the mediums of film, theater, music, and art, to contain his own vision. Now, at the age of 75, he is still the young man who told the story of Sweetback, and continues to tell the story. It is the story of a man who can never stop running. “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus Itchyfooted Mutha,” begins as a hip autobiography told in the rhythms of Poetry+Soul, with lines such as “to save myself money I stopped going to the movies and went to the library and started to triple-feature my way through the books.” It is like a Northern “HuckleBerry Finn” told from Jim’s point of view. Then it gets weird, and a little scary, as he falls into the Hudson River and floats past the Stature of Liberty onto the beaches of Manhattan, where new adventures await. After crossing the equator a couple hundred times, he returns to New York City like a penitent Odysseus, wanting nothing more from the world except the forgiveness of the woman he has left behind.

Peebles will give a master class workshop at the NWWF on Monday, Sept 7 th, from 7-10 pm. Tuition is $40/WigglyWorld members, $50/general, and attendance is limited to 50. He will also be reading on Sunday Sept. 6th from 3:45-5pm at Bumbershoot’s Literary Arts Stage, and will be present at the Sept. 9th screenings at NWWF.



2 Responses to “What you need to know about Melvin Van Peebles”

  1. Stephen Henderson Says:

    Wonderful piece, but I take exception with the perspective on August Wilson. Aside from the early plays you mention honorably as beyond Arthur Miller in Black face, I remind you that Jitney was written originally in 1977, the only one of the plays written in the decade in which it is set and when the originality you accurately site was most in evidence. He revisited in 1996 with great effectiveness. Also the last play he did with the giant Lloyd Richards was, Seven Guitars. which I suggest you examine again along with King Hedley II before categorizing it as “subscription bait” for regional theatre or “compromised mainstream.” There is no need to depose one major contributor to exalt another. Mr. Van Peebles is all you say and then some, and Lloyd Richards was a major mentor for playwrights and filmmakers (Michael Shultz, William Duke…), and Wilson’s genius stands firm. By the way, Arthur Miller was no lightwieght.

  2. Ryan Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Stephen! This is a repost from the Seattle Post Globe, though – so you might want to post your comments directly there to be sure the author sees them.

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