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His first film, produced in France in 1968, was "La Permission"

(The Story of a Three Day Pass), about a romance in France between

a black American soldier and a Parisian woman. "Watermelon Man"

 (1970) starred Godfrey Cambridge playing a white bigot

who wakes up black one day.



Melvin Van Peebles and his Pals

By Mike Zwerin




Wednesday, June 26, 2002

An evening titled "Melvin Van Peebles et Ses Potes" (and His Pals) featuring Van Peebles's own songs, along with gospel, rhythm and blues and jazz adaptations of the songs of the 19th-century cabaret artist Aristide Bruant will be presented at the Café de la Danse, near the Bastille, on Friday. Taking time out from the intensive rehearsals of the musical review that he is directing, choreographing and singing and starring in, he said: "I shoot the breeze between numbers, sort of like Charles Aznavour." He is not the sort of person who suffers from stage fright.

In principle, this one performance will be the end of it. Which is fine with him. Van Peebles "can't think of anything I'd rather be doing right now." Any hope he admits he may harbor for a longer run is not due to pressing need: "I don't have a mistress and I don't have a car. I have a low overhead. As Thoreau said, you're rich in relation to what your needs are." .

The concept of low overhead is indeed relative in the wide world of moving pictures, where Van Peebles is best known. What is considered Robert Altman's down-and-out period in Paris roughly a decade ago included a chauffeur-driven sedan and a cozy Left Bank apartment not far from Notre Dame. Van Peebles, whose low overhead covers residences in New York, Los Angeles and Paris's Pigalle, rose to the level of what one journalist called an "iconic presence" after he produced, directed, starred in and wrote the music for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a controversial movie about a black man on the run after killing two white policemen. .

Made in 1971 for $500,000 (10 percent of it borrowed from Bill Cosby), it was dedicated to "all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man." It grossed $10 million in the first year and spawned Hollywood's "Blaxploitation" trend, a credit he is not particularly proud of. "The term really has nothing to do with me. It has a derogatory sense to it. You know, everybody tries to keep us in our place with these limiting labels." .

His first film, produced in France in 1968, was "La Permission" (Story of a Three Day Pass), about a romance in France between a black American soldier and a Parisian woman. Watermelon Man (1970) starred Godfrey Cambridge playing a white bigot who wakes up black one day. He wrote the screenplay for Greased Lightning (1977), with Richard Pryor playing the black race-car driver Wendell Scott. In 1995, co-producing with his son Mario, who directed it (Mario recently portrayed Malcolm X in "Ali"), Van Peebles wrote the script for "Panther," a fictionalized account of the rise of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers had declared "Sweetback" required viewing for its members. Van Peebles was "pleased they recognized it. I was in complete sympathy with the Panthers."

In Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks, a book about black filmmakers, Donald Bogle called Sweetback an uncompromising, totally independent trailblazer that heralded a new kind of black cinema." He added that it "inspired a later generation of African American moviemakers like Spike Lee and Albert and Allen Hughes." .He's now writing a novel - his 13th book - without a contract. "If the manuscript is rejected," he said, "the way I look at it, it will be the publisher being stupid. My point of view has always been that if the girl turns me down she's an obvious lesbian." .This outburst of what some might consider outrageously macho thinking is more likely some sort of "bad brother" shtick. It is, in any case, followed by a smile and a pregnant pause. .

The self-confidence is real enough, but Van Peebles seems to be daring you to look behind a particular role it is amusing him to play. The posturing is tempered by his sweet and tender voice and a straight-faced ironic twinkle partly hidden by black-rimmed Harold Lloyd eyeglasses and the pulled-down visor of a James Cagney gangster cap. With his grandfatherly gray beard, laid-back hip manner and wide frame of reference, he resembles his fellow icon, the late adorable elder statesman of jazz - he places a respectful hand over his heart at the mention of the name - Slim (Vout-o-roonie) Gaillard. .Gaillard was an apple farmer in Washington state. Van Peebles was one of the first black traders on the New York Stock Exchange. His book, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market (1986) is still in print. Both of them were in the U.S. Air Force - Gaillard a maintenance engineer in the groundbreaking black fighter squadron during World War II, Van Peebles the navigator and only black crew member on a B-47 bomber in Korea. .

He recalled: "They all had thick southern accents. You would have thought I was an albino, the way they treated me. They were unbelievably nice: 'Y'all got to come down to our Bar-B-Q on Saturday.' Because they all knew that if the navigator makes a mistake, everybody dies." Van Peebles was reminded of his wartime experience when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards: "Basically they owe their Oscars to the Taliban. When Americans are in trouble, suddenly we're all Americans somehow." He has been called an enfant terrible, a Renaissance man and a one-man conglomerate; he has been a cable-car grip-man in San Francisco and a portrait painter in Mexico; he studied astronomy in the Netherlands and was a street musician and a journalist in Paris. He can write in French. The way he puts it: "I have various arrows in my quiver." .

When his albums "Br'er Soul" and "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," both recently reissued, were released by A&M Records in the late 1960s, that sort of thing was still filed under "spoken word." The recordings influenced such rap precursors as the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. "Actually," Van Peebles said, with his straight-faced twinkle: "It wasn't really me who invented rap. I stole the idea from Aristide Bruant." His music for "Sweet Sweetback" was performed by the then unknown group Earth, Wind Fire; the sound track was their first album. .

He wrote the book, lyrics and music for and co-produced the Broadway musical: "Don't Play Us Cheap." It was nominated for three Tony and two Grammy awards. In 1997, he performed in a cabaret set called "Br'er Soul and Roadkill" in the Fez Café in New York. According to Jon Pareles in The New York Times, he "turned rock, pop, Broadway and disco songs into extensions of his own down-home philosophy. As he sees it, most of us are roadkill on the highway of love." .

The idea for the friendly musical review on Friday was born last year when Van Peebles was invited to a film festival called Festival des Trois Continents in Nantes. He thanked them but said: "I don't have a film this year." The festival's director Philippe Jalladeau replied: "No, we want you to be the entertainment." Why not? Van Peebles had nothing better to do and, he thought: "I'm too short to play basketball and too nervous to steal." .He took the song and dance arrow from his quiver once more and cast six young French singers (three women, three men) and six musicians in Nantes. They were, he says, "excited about it. It's an adventure for them, an opportunity to grow." .

Selecting songs from "Ain't Supposed to Die," "Sweetback" and elsewhere, he put some demos together and told everybody to "get as close as possible to my partitions" - which is advanced Franglais for "arrangements." "Save any suggestions for when I come back," he said, and when he did he was more than impressed. "Oh, man, man, man, man, man! These people are terrific. They are so talented and positive. They really want to do it the right way. Like Quincy Jones says; 'You've got to leave room for God in these things.' .

"It's another frame of reference here. I have to be totally specific in order to get the right feeling, the right texture. It's not New York, I can't just ask them to sound like the horns at the beginning of some Marvin Gaye record, or to 'put in some Monk.' I have to micro-manage. It's time-intensive work. I'm also my own sound and light director. There's no way I can delegate all of these responsibilities. Not that I have problems with any of it. I keep saying to myself: 'For once God got it right.'"

Source: International Herald Tribune

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Melvin Van Peebles

director, actor, writer

Born: 8/21/32

Birthplace: Chicago


A pioneer in African American cinema, Van Peebles has directed, edited, and produced films and is also an actor and composer of music. His career was launched in Paris (1964–67), where he wrote novels and made his first feature film, Story of a Three Day Pass (1967). Columbia hired him to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a humorous film on bigotry. His controversial work Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song   (1971), which he financed independently, was followed by successful forays into musical theater and commodities trading. His son Mario Van Peebles is an actor and director; the two have collaborated in films such as Gang in Blue (1996).

Van Peebles was born in 1932 on the south side of Chicago, but spent most of his adolescent years with his father, a tailor in Phoenix, Illinois. After graduating from high school in 1949 and from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953, Van Peebles served as a flight navigator for three and a half years in the U.S. Air Force. After the military he spent brief stints in Mexico and San Francisco — where he was married — before moving to Europe.

He studied at the Dutch National Theatre in the Netherlands, then moved to France in the early 1960s. During nearly a decade in Paris, Van Peebles wrote and published several novels in French, including La Permssion, which he filmed under the title of The Story of the Three Day Pass, which concerns a black U.S. serviceman. The film won critical acclaim, and helped Van Peebles earn a studio contract with Columbia Pictures.

Van Peebles returned to the United States, and in 1969 directed Watermelon Man, a comedy about a racist white insurance salesman who wakes up one day to find that he has become black. Van Peebles took the proceeds from the film and made Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song  (1971), one of the most successful and controversial independent films of the era. Sweetback pushed the limits of cinematic décor, combining sex and violence in its depiction of a black sex worker who witnesses the murder of a young black revolutionary by two white police officers.

It was one of the first "blaxpoitation" films of the 1970s and its success opened doors for African American directors, camera operators, designers, and editors.In the early 1970s, Van Peebles staged two plays on Broadway, a musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and Don't Play Us Cheap, based on his novel Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party.

Later in the decade he wrote scripts for two television productions, Just an Old Sweet Song and Sophisticated Gents. Van Peebles turned his attention to business in the early eighties, and became an options trader on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. Drawing on his success, he published two books on the Options Market. Since then he has written a novel, and appeared in his son, Mario Van Peebles' 1993 movie  Posse, an all-black Western.

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Director, Le Conte du Ventre Plein (2000)

Actor, Smut (1999)

Actor, The Time of Her Time (1999)

Actor, Love Kills (1998)

Producer, Writer, and Host, Classified X (1998) (TV)

Actor, The Shining (ABC: 1997)

Co-Director, Gang in Blue (1996) (TV)

Actor, Riot (1996) (TV)

Actor, Calm at Sunset (1996) (TV)

Co-Producer, Writer, and Actor, Panther (1995)

Actor, Fist of the North (1995)

Director, Producer, and Writer, Vroom, Vroom, Vroom (1995)

Director, The Outer Limits (1995)

Actor, Terminal Velocity (1994)

Director, Tales of Erotica (1994)

Actor, Posse (1993)

Actor, Boomerang (1992)

Actor, True Identity (1991)

Director and Producer, Identity Crisis (1989)

Actor, Sonny Spoon (1988)

Actor, Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

Writer, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (1986) (TV)

Actor, America (1986)

Actor, Wonderworks: Taking Care of Terrific (1986)

Actor, O.C. and Stiggs (1985)

Actor and Writer, Sophisticated Gents (1981) (TV)

Writer, Greased Lightning (1977)

Writer, Just an Old Sweet Song (1976) (TV)

Director, Writer, and Producer, Don't Play Us Cheap (1972-transformed from the play he wrote entitled, "Harlem Party")

Director, Writer, Producer and Actor, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song  (1971)

Director, Watermelon Man (1970)

Director and Actor, Story of a Three Day Pass (1967)

Director, Writer and Producer, Three Pick-Up Men for Herrick (1958)

Director, Writer and Producer, Sunlight (1958)

Director, Writer and Producer, A King (1958)

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#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection.

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel.

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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