WHAT’S IT LIKE to talk with Melvin Van Peebles? Well, if you must ask him whether he thinks today’s black filmmakers have carried on the call to action of his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s your own fault.
“First, I must explain to you: I’m here under false pretenses,” he answers, laughing. “I’m not a niggerologist.”
So, no, it’s not an easy interview. But, then, to expect the whip-smart, 73-year-old to be easy is to forget that easy is not something he does. In addition to writing numerous books and plays—and even once holding a seat on the American Stock Exchange—he is most famously the writer/director/composer/editor/ star of 1971’s Sweetback, in which a hustler beats two policeman who are brutally “interrogating” a young black activist. It lost Van Peebles the three-picture studio deal he’d gained after the success of 1970’s “easier” Watermelon Man.
He is not, however, difficult. An unlit, halfsmoked cigar in his hand nicely offsets the amused half-smile that’s always about to curl his lips. Van Peebles just doesn’t want an interview—he wants a conversation. You want to talk, you’d better be up for it, smart guy.
He’s at the Paramount Theatre to introduce The Scar of Shame for Black History Month. Though it’s a rare 1926 African-American produced independent film examining prejudices within that community, you should not expect him to consider his own work in the larger history of black filmmaking. “If you mean black, what I hope you mean are the African-American-controlled films,” he says.
“There are not enough that we could talk about them as a movement as yet. But they’ll be coming along and then, at that time, I’ll be very glad to tell you the little bit that I don’t know.”
Okay but, come on, certainly he can admit his own achievement. “Damn right it’s an achievement,” he acknowledges. “But that achievement does not anoint me with the sociological implications of knowing about the universe.”
He may have lectured at Harvard, but you may as well admit your losses and ask the obvious—what film he’s making now. “It’s a picaresque,” he answers. “It’s some guy who wises up as he’s going along living life.” And he’s really not going think about how such work fits in beyond the moment? “I do movies or books or records like I cook,” he says, that half-smile ready to curl again. “I put in what I like—in case no one else likes it, I gotta eat it the rest of the week.”