Godspeed you black maestro

Melvin Van Peebles turns 80.

He decided on the direct approach and made a film inspired by his blob of desert-spent jism and visualized a parable of a modern black fugitive/runaway slave told in the raw, liberating language of a poet-warrior. (Chairman Ho Chi Nigger, aka Darius James)

Birthdays and anniversaries are usually rather self-congratulatory affairs, opportunities for a reassuring dose of back-patting platitudes and anecdotage. But that is not likely to be the case for Melvin Van Peebles' 80th birthday that will be celebrated tonight at the Film Forum in New York. Though the Afro-American polymath has reached that venerable age, his body of work is not ready yet for retrospective mummification. Now that Obama's "hopeful" prosthetic surgery is peeling off, Van Peebles’s grandiloquently titled masterwork Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song feels as urgent as it did first released in 1971.

“Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury”, this dissonant viual poem – an insurgent confession of a psychedelic soul on ice – epitomises Van Peebles’ protean genius and vision. His determination to autonomously produce, direct, edit, score and star in the first independent black film to rock the foundations of Hollywood remains unmatched. By turning the censors’ scissors into a marketing asset, subverting the dominant depiction of black people on the silver screen while offering black audiences the ransom of respect, Van Peebles made history. Sweetback, which had to be disguised as a pornographic film during production in order to bypass showbiz restrictions, tells the story of a black hustler who, after having killed a cop, flees the urban jungle for the desert. As he escapes, Sweetback enjoys the solidarity of, variously, a priest, Latino drag queens and fellow black brothers and sisters, thus turning his solitary deeds into a kind of collective identification. The film’s different layers coalesce into a vivid whole of lysergic colours, strident sounds and agit-propping jump cuts.

Possibly the first experimental film to acquire blockbuster status without coming to terms with the formal requirements of the box office, Van Peebles’s film gave voice to a previously voiceless black community desperate to see itself on screen for the first time, unleashed. “To create a commercially feasible vehicle, our society being capitalistic and all that, plus to do something that wasn’t Uncle-Tommy,” was Van Peebles’s intention. In doing so, he avoided the besetting sin of militant cinema: elitism.

The New York Times's Vincent Canby wrote the film off as “a slight, pale escape drama about a black man” while authoritative voices from the Black Arts movement dismissed it as stereotypical and exploitative. Huey P Newton, chairman of the Black Panthers, dedicated an entire issue of the party's newspaper to the film hailing it as a revolutionary masterpiece. Newton noted the economic paradox by which the film’s radical agenda defied The Man: “corporate capitalists are so anxious to bleed us for more profits that they either ignore or fail to recognize the many ideas in the film, but because we have supported the movie with our attendance we are able to receive its message”. Predominantly black audiences flocked in, a new "constituency", as the director called his spectators, was born. The film ended up grossing around $10-million having cost $500,000 to make. As this previously untapped market opened up, Hollywood quickly monopolised and neutralised the revolutionary potential of black movie-going: "Blaxploitation" was born. Notable exceptions notwithstanding, the genre, as its name suggests, traded on stereotypes while advancing a sort of Afro-Capitalist-cum-Black-Supremacist-revenge worldview wholly removed from Van Peebles’s idiosyncratic insurrectionary stance.

Godspeed you black maestro, and happy birthday!

Revolutionary road: Melvin Van Peebles in 2008 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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