aka How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass
Reviewed in July 2004
Director: Mario Van Peebles. Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Khleo Thomas, Nia Long, Joy Bryant, Ossie Davis, Rainn Wilson, David Alan Grier, Terry Crews, T.K. Carter, Paul Rodriguez, Glenn Plummer, Penny Bae Bridges, Sally Struthers, Saul Rubinek, Adam West, Vincent Schiavelli, Bill Cosby. Screenplay: Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty (based on the book and film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles).

Photo © 2003 MVP Films
© 2004 Sony Pictures Classics
Call it African-American Splendor: more than thirty years after Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the angriest, most renegade movie of what became the blaxploitation movement, featuring a cameo by his son Mario as Sweetback's own son, now Mario is all grown up and starring as his papa Melvin, in a loosely fictionalized version of Sweetback's creation, including actors playing famous people and, in a coda, the same famous people appearing as themselves. There are also actors playing unfamous people, and many of these unfamous people also later appear as themselves. Clips of Melvin playing Sweetback in the original Sweetback are intercut with the new film's footage of Mario playing Sweetback in Sweetback, while young Khleo Thomas stands by in the role of young Mario. Honey, this is as clear as I can make it.

And actually, if you see Baadasssss!, the title Mario has given to his movie about Melvin, you'll find that all of this convolution is much clearer than it sounds on paper. In fact, most of the time, the convolution barely even feels convoluted: while Baadasssss! could easily veer in the direction of American Splendor or of one of Charlie Kaufman's headfucks du jour, Mario Van Peebles fights every impulse to seem clever or postmodern for their own sake. Baadasssss! is as literal and straightforward a movie as it could possibly be. Despite the half-hearted and mini-budgeted attempts to revive 1970s psychadelica in a few party scenes, and despite some passing allusions to the sexual hedonism of Melvin and his era, the new film is almost demure. Mario's impulse to represent his father as some kind of protean, tortured figure, ignited by passion that spills too quickly into rage, is qualified all around by his earnest belief in his father's heroism, and of the weight of what he achieved in Sweetback. This has got to be the most reverent, nearly obedient exposé that a famous child ever offered about a famous and tempestuous parent. The last thing you expect a film called Baadasssss! to be is subdued, but for all its gentle comedy, its fondness for the radical gestures of an earlier generation, and its swirling, colorful surfaces, Baadasssss! feels less like a tribute to Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and more like an obedient child. The new film reins in its anger and its skepticism so tightly that Sweetback itself comes across much more sedately than it should, and you can't help but think that, for all kinds of reasons, modern independent cinema is much more comfortable with conceptually edgy but temperamentally safe nostalgia pieces like this one than with unapologetically inflammatory stuff like Sweetback. The press that has surrounded Baadasssss!'s creation, including the fact that Melvin forced Mario to pay top dollar for the rights to include scenes from Sweetback, imply that Melvin is still very much the pip in this family, Mario still the obliging and cowed onlooker.

If Baadasssss! disappoints in being so decorous, it's still a good yarn, and though Mario has always been too stolid as an actor, he surrounds himself with some reliably good turns from under-employed actors like Nia Long and Glenn Plummer, plus an important supporting role for that old warhorse Ossie Davis and a tartly funny part for the always-welcome David Alan Grier. Khleo Thomas from Holes, as Mario's young alter ego, is upstaged throughout by his massive Afro wig, but he's still an expressive and totally un-irritating child performer. The anecdotes in Baadasssss!'s plot are occasionally quite sharp, like when the whole Sweetback camera crew is apprehended by local police, who simply can't imagine what racial minority members could possibly or honestly be doing with the expensive equipment in their truck. I wish Baadasssss! felt just the slightest bit dangerous, but in opting to be dutiful, it has preserved a story that is worth preserving—and one that remains sadly relevant for today's embattled black filmmakers. C+

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