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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

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In the 1940s, a young Afro-American orphan finds his home in a brothel. His sexual exploits become legend before long and he becomes a performer in a sex parlour. One night, two cops round him up but on their way, they also snag the activist Mu-Mu, a member of the Black Panthers. Things go downhill, the cops find a quiet corner to park in and proceed to put some serious hurt on Mu-Mu. Sweetback cannot look the other way and violently intervenes in the beating, leaving the two cops for dead. He’s on the run now, his flight from crooked justice taking him from Los Angeles to the Mexican border. Confrontations, betrayals and obstacles litter the path of his odyssey by foot, motorcycle and thumb through city and desert alike. A violent road movie calling for the fall of racism — and the rise of a new movement.

“This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.” With these proud words blazing across its opening frames, SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG announces a revolution as it single-handedly ignites a genre and new cinematic affirmation. Its impact convinced Hollywood that black cinema had a profitable audience, setting off the blaxploitation explosion. Melvin Van Peebles used all the tools at his disposal — wild art direction, unconventional framing, eccentric actors, multiple exposures, negatives, edgy editing, split-screens and other tricks of the era. Made on a minute budget, the outdoor scenes were shot guerrilla style, injecting an amplified realism. The jittery editing reflects the urgency of the film’s intentions. Shot freely, it ironically follows a man in his quest for freedom. The visionary Melvin Van Peebles, who had worked with Earth Wind & Fire, created a soundtrack that not only fuelled the film’s rhythm but cemented the sound of its imitators to come, confirming the alliance of black cinema and music in the ’70s. An X rating on release (under 17 not allowed) allowed Van Peebles (who gleefully admitted that many of his favourite movies were similarly classified) to plaster on his posters, “Rated X by an All-White Jury!”.

— Marc Lamothe

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