Melvin Van Peebles, an icon of Black cinema who acted in and directed influential ’70s films like “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” died Tuesday at age 89.
His actor-director son Mario Van Peebles announced the news of his passing on Wednesday along with the Criterion Collection and Janus Films. No cause of death was given.
“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,” the statement read.
“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free,” Mario Van Peebles wrote in a statement. “True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
Van Peebles’ 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback” is scheduled to screen this weekend as part of its 50th anniversary at the New York Film Festival, and his play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” was also slated for a return to Broadway next year.
“Sweet Sweetback” is an iconic blaxploitation film starring Van Peebles as a Black male prostitute named Sweet Sweetback who goes on the run from white cops after saving a Black Panther from a racist attack. (Son Mario makes a brief appearance in a flashback as the boyhood version of the title character.) Its distinctive jump cuts and rapid editing became a touchstone for filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton, among many others.
Van Peebles received a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the movie, and he recruited Earth, Wind and Fire for the film’s score and released the soundtrack album as a means of promoting the film in the absence of a traditional marketing budget. Although the film was censored in some markets, it was a box office success, becoming the most financially successful independent film ever made at the time and was even considered essential viewing for the Black Panther Party. In 2020, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Archive.
Born in Chicago, Melvin Van Peebles spent three and a half years in the U.S. Air Force before making his first short film in 1957, “Pickup Men for Herrick.” And while developing as a filmmaker, Van Peebles also became a prolific writer in France, publishing four novels and multiple short stories. He also dabbled in songwriting, painting and theater.
His first feature, 1967’s “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” launched him in Hollywood and led to his casting in the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy “Watermelon Man.” The film told the story of a bigoted white man who suddenly wakes up one morning to find he’s turned Black.
Some of his other directing credits included films such as 1973’s “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” 1989’s “Identity Crisis” and 2000’s “Bellyful.” He also continued acting, appearing in such films as 1987’s “Jaws: The Revenge” and 1994’s “Terminal Velocity.” He also wrote a half-dozen stage plays and released seven studio albums as part of his prolific career.