It's been over ten years since Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City, the film which marked his directorial debut, garnered him widespread critical acclaim. Although he has appeared in and directed films in the interim, it hasn't been until his latest film Baadasssss! that he has done equally brilliant work both in front of and behind the camera. In it, he recounts his legendary father Melvin Van Peebles' creation of the first independent film by an African-American, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
At the beginning of the film, Melvin, played by Mario, is a motorcycle-riding, cigar-chomping maverick who is set to breakthrough in Hollywood with his comedy The Watermelon Man, when he becomes compelled to make a more serious film of biting social commentary on the struggle of black Americans. Unable to get funding for such a film in white-dominated Hollywood in racially turbulent 1971, Melvin sets about funding the film independently, using his own money after his flaky hippie financier ends up in jail. Mario (played by Khleo Thomas), a thirteen-year-old boy at the time, is shown as a quiet, curious, and creative child who is eager to help out with his father's film (a slightly unsubtle touch from director Mario, but he manages to make it convincing). Melvin insisted on an at least 50% minority crew, but as a result of being unable to pay union wages, he ultimately assembled a ragtag, multiracial group, many of whom had little to no prior experience with film production. It is from this group of characters which come some of the best performances in Baadasssss!. Among them are the delightfully funny Joy Bryant, who plays Melvin's secretary and aspiring actress constantly gunning for a role in one of Melvin's films; and Terry Crews as Big T, the surly head of security and reluctant sound-guy. Between these two performances, they nearly steal the entire film.
Mario Van Peebles' portrait of his father is one that is sensitive, loving, and yet not entirely without criticism. He clearly has a great vast respect and appreciation for Melvin and his accomplishments. As a performance, Mario brings an honesty to the role of Melvin that would seem impossible to extract from any other actor. No doubt this is in part a result of the former having himself lived through the events portrayed, but it is also evidently born of his passion for the subject matter and for filmmaking itself.
While the the prime objective of Baadasssss! is to tell of the trials and tribulations encountered by Melvin Van Peebles in making and releasing Sweetback, which became a landmark of black cinema, it ultimately accomplishes a lot more. Melvin's own background, specifically his family relations and role as a single father, features strongly as a theme. It also makes an important statement about the nature of independent film, including the results and politics (both positive and negative) of having a small amount of financial resources versus being given an overblown budget by a major studio.