"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Monday, October 01, 2007,12:28 PM
Melvin Van Peebles Interview
by Sarah Hepola
June 22, 2007

Melvin Van Peebles answers the phone by repeating the last digits of his number. He has a sweetness and a syrup in his voice. His easy grin, white beard, and cigar might con you into thinking he's a nice old man, who recites poetry and putters around the yard. He's not. At seventy-four, he is ever the provocateur, the man who kickstarted the blaxploitation genre, the man who once punched out an audience member who insulted his film, the infamous Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. That historic 1971 movie alone should testify to Melvin Van Peebles' brass balls: He wrote, directed, and starred in the film, about a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. In the first scene, a little boy loses his virginity to a hooker; if that weren't hardcore enough, Van Peebles cast his son, Mario, in the role. Eventually, Mario became a filmmaker, and among his resume is the film BAADASSSSS!, which recounts his father's epic struggle to make the film, also recounted in Van Peebles Sr.'s book, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: A Guerrilla Manifesto.

Joe Angio's How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which came out earlier this month on DVD, is an overview of Van Peebles' staggering career, not just as a filmmaker, but also as a writer, sculptor, and one of the early pioneers of hip-hop and spoken word. Sweetback is recounted, yes, but it shares screen time with discussions of the Tony-nominated play, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Van Peebles' albums, and a consideration of his formidable, and continued, reputation as a lover. He may be the ultimate cool dude, as notable for his talent as for his resourcefulness and his inability to give up. As Elvis Mitchell says in the film, "He's the consummate huckster, the African-American P.T. Barnum. And I don't mean that in a bad way." — Sarah Hepola

How to Eat Your Watermelon makes a big deal about your active dating life. Are you still dating lots of women?
I'm practically a monk. This is gossip.

Oh, please.

[Laughs.] Ah, I survive. I do the best I can.

You do better than that. Often, men get anxious and self-conscious as they age. You haven't.
What's to be complimented? Get outta here. You know what you know.

But you've always had a very relaxed attitude about sex. Where does that come from?
I haven't the slightest idea. Once I asked my daughter, "Why are these women reacting to me like this?" She said, "Well, you seem like you know something." You, as a lady, would probably have a better idea. I don't bother nobody. Honestly, I don't.

But here we are in America, a puritanical country —
Oh, that's bullshit. Yeah, that's bullshit. Maybe it's true. But look. It doesn't matter. You got everybody outnumbered. If 100% of one side wants to get down, and 50% of the other side wants to get down, look at the odds. That's at least 75% getting down. Most people just wanna know that you respect them, and you're not a serial rapist.

I think I'm a default player. I treat people with honesty. It's always been the same. Always, always. "Why so pale and wan, fond lover? / Prithee, why so pale? / Will, when looking well can't move her / Looking ill prevail?" [He goes on to recite the entire poem.] That's from the 1600s. Sir John Suckling.

What's that called?
I don't know. Do you want me to look it up? Hold on. [hums to himself] Okay, I got the book here and just hang with me for a second, old girl. "Why So Pale and Wan Young Lover?"

Why do you have that memorized?
I have no idea. Why do you know the things you do?

Well, I don't have poems ready to recite in order to woo ladies.
Are you a lesbian?

And that's why. You learn these things if you want to get women in bed.

So what are you working on these days?
Working on a movie, working on some music, working on a sculpture. I'm always working on a lot of crap. I suppose the major project is a movie, which is Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Mutha.

What's it about?
It's pretty much about what it says.

Is it about you?
I hope not. I don't consider myself a doofus.

So you're the subject of two movies now — How to Eat Your Watermelon and your son's film BAADASSSSS!. Why is there such continued interest in your story?
Right place at the right time, I guess. America was gonna get discovered eventually. Someone was going to learn how to capitalize on the incredible difference between what America was saying and what it was doing. So I'm the Rosa Parks of showbusiness.

Sure, luck. But also tenacity, as both those films make clear.
I'll take that. I work hard.

Digital film has made filmmaking so much cheaper. Do you feel jealous when you think about how much easier it is to make a movie these days?
Making movies isn't easy. Taking images and stringing them together, anyone can do that. I like digital film. I use it.

Sweetback is always discussed in terms of its political influence, but how did people react to the sexual content?
What sexual content? [laughs] Oh get outta here. Have you read my book, Sweet Sweetback? I'm not trying to bust you, but I'm asking.

I haven't.
You should read it. That lays it all out there. You would get a kick out of. Read it. You'll have a real time. As it was happening, I thought, man, nobody's gonna believe this shit. That's why I wrote the whole thing out. Really. Don't just read it for this interview. But it explains each and every thing. I mean, it's like you're asking me to teach you Polish in four sentences. I can't. Well, I could, but I'm too lazy and ornery to give you a whole political context lesson. Read the book, then ask me again. We'll go out for a beer.

One of the most interesting scenes in BAADASSSSS!, your son's film, involves your decision to cast him in the first scene of Sweet Sweetback's. Did it bother you to watch that?
No. I was interested to see his perspective. I know my perspective. But that's why I wanted to see his film. To see what he thought. Same with this documentary. I wanted to see what Joe [Angio] thought of me.

And what was that?
Well, I don't know. That's why I'm always asking people, "What did you think of the movie? What did you think of that guy?"

It's funny that you would say "that guy" when it's you.
I've always been like that. When I was making Sweetback, I was always referring to the character as "him." Okay, that's not me, it's a guy. It's a character. I'm able to have that separation.

What kind of access did you give Joe [Angio]?
Total. Sure. Early on, I just decided to be myself. Then I don't have to remember to be anything else. Nobody can come up and say, 'Oh, you said you were this or that.' Nope. I never said I was anything. Look, I thought they were fair and sweet and nice.

The documentary talks about some of your other accomplishments — musical, theatrical, written. Is there one, in particular, you feel is underrated?
My sexual prowess. But I'm glad it's underrated, because somebody's husband might be reading.

©2007 Sarah Hepola and Nerve.com


posted by R J Noriega
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