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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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution