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Godspeed you black maestro

Melvin Van Peebles turns 80.

Revolutionary road: Melvin Van Peebles in 2008 (Photograph: Getty Images)

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!