Melvin Van Peebles  

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"Hollywood took my formula diminished the concept of Negritude to a flamboyant cartoon and reversed the political message turning it into a counter-revolutionary one and voila, out of the commercial success of Sweetback -- to make a long story short -- the blaxploitation movie was born."--Melvin Van Peebles cited in Classified X (1998)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Melvin Van Peebles (born Melvin Peebles; August 21, 1932 – September 22, 2021) was an American filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, and composer best known for the film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), one of the earliest blaxploitation movies.

Of interest is also his documentary Classified X (1998).


Early life and education

Born Melvin Peebles, in Chicago, Illinois, his father was a tailor. In 1954, Melvin graduated with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and, thirteen days later, joined the Air Force, serving for three and a half years. He added “Van” to his name when he lived in the Netherlands in his late 20s.


Early years

He worked as a cable car gripman in San Francisco. Later, he wrote about these experiences. His first book, The Big Heart, credited to Melvin Van, evolved from a small article and a series of photographs taken by Ruth Bernhard.

According to Van Peebles, a passenger suggested that he should become a filmmaker. Van Peebles shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick in 1957, and made two more short films during the same period. About these films, Van Peebles said: "I thought they were features. Each one turned out to be eleven minutes long. I was trying to do features. I knew nothing." As he learned more about the filmmaking process, he found out that "I could make a feature for five hundred dollars. That was the cost of 90 minutes of film. I didn't know a thing about shooting a film sixteen to one or ten to one or none of that shit. Then I forgot you had to develop film. And I didn't know you needed a work print. All I can say is that after I did one thing he would say, 'Well, aren't you gonna put sound on it?' and I would go, 'Oh shit!' That's all I could say."

After Van Peebles completed his first short films, he took them with him to Hollywood to try to find work, but was unable to find anyone who wanted to hire him as a director. Van Peebles decided to move his family to the Netherlands where he planned to study astronomy. On the way to Europe, in New York City, he met Amos Vogel, founder of the avant-garde Cinema 16 who agreed to place two of Van Peebles's shorts in his rental catalog. Vogel screened Van Peebles's Three Pickup Men for Herrick at Cinema 16 on a program with City of Jazz in the spring of 1960 with Ralph Ellison leading a post-film discussion. When Vogel went to Paris shortly after, he brought Van Peebles's films to show Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson at the Cinémathèque Française. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Van Peebles's marriage dissolved and his wife and children went back to the United States. Shortly thereafter, Van Peebles was invited to Paris probably by Mary Meerson and/or Lotte Eisner, founders of the Cinémathèque Française, on the strength of his short films. In France, Van Peebles created a short film Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs) (1961) and then established himself as a writer. He did investigative reporting for France Observateur during 1963–64, during which he profiled, and later became friends with, Chester Himes. Himes got him a job at the anti-authoritarian humor magazine Hara-kiri, where Van Peebles wrote a monthly column and eventually joined the editorial board.


During 1965–66, Mad magazine attempted a French edition and hired Van Peebles as editor-in-chief during its run of only five issues. He began to write plays in French, utilizing the sprechgesang form of songwriting, where the lyrics were spoken over the music. This style carried over to Van Peebles' debut album, Brer Soul.

Van Peebles was a prolific writer in France. He published four novels and a collection of short stories. He completed at least one play, La Fête à Harlem which was also released as a novel, and which he would later make into the musical Don't Play Us Cheap. Roger Blin directed La Fête a Harlem with the Les Griots theatrical troupe for the Festival du jeune théâtre in Leige, Belgium in September 1964. Van Peebles made his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) (1968) based on a novel by the same title. The film caught the attention of Hollywood producers who mistook him for a French auteur after it won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival as the French entry. Van Peebles's first Hollywood film was the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy Watermelon Man, written by Herman Raucher. The movie starring Godfrey Cambridge tells the story of a casually racist white man who suddenly wakes up black and finds himself alienated from his friends, family, and job.


In 1970 Van Peebles was also to direct filming of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival, which was banned by court injunction. After Watermelon Man, Van Peebles became determined to have complete control over his next production, which became the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), privately funded with his own money, and in part by a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby. Van Peebles not only directed, scripted, and edited the film, but wrote the score and directed the marketing campaign. The film, which in the end grossed $10 million, was, among many others, acclaimed by the Black Panthers for its political resonance with the black struggle. His son Mario's 2003 film BAADASSSSS! tells the story behind the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; father and son presented the film together as the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2004.

Van Peebles wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the stage musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which opened off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway, running for 325 performances in 1971-72. For his next Broadway musical, Don't Play Us Cheap!, Van Peebles performed the same duties, as well as producing and directing. The show ran for 164 performances in 1972, earning Van Peebles another Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical. He adapted it into a film in 1973.

In 1977, Van Peebles was one of four credited screenwriters on the film Greased Lightning, about the life of pioneering Black NASCAR driver Wendell Scott. He was originally the director of the film as well, but was replaced by Michael Schultz.

Van Peebles was involved with two more Broadway musicals in the 1980s. He was a co-writer on the book for Reggae, which closed after 21 performances in 1980. For Waltz of the Stork, he wrote book, music, and lyrics, as well as producing the show and playing the lead role. It ran for 160 performances in 1982.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange while continuing to work in theater and film.

In 1995, he co-starred in the Tony Randel American live-action version of Japanese manga Fist of the North Star..


In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary entitled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). Also in 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of the documentary Unstoppable: Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis, which also featured Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks in the same room. It was moderated by Warrington Hudlin.

In 2005, it was announced that Van Peebles would collaborate with Madlib for a proposed double album titled Brer Soul Meets Quasimoto. However, nothing further was issued about this project from the time that it was first announced.

In 2008, Van Peebles completed the film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, which was the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2008, and appeared on All My Children as Melvin Woods, the father of Samuel Woods, a character portrayed by his son, Mario.

In 2009, Van Peebles became involved with a project to adapt Sweet Sweetback into a musical. A preliminary version of this was staged at the Apollo Theater on April 25–26, 2009. As well, he wrote and performed in a stage musical, Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies, which featured some of his previous songs as well as some new material.


In 2011, Van Peebles started doing shows in NYC with members of Burnt Sugar, under the name Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative. Van Peebles said that the band is called Laxative because they "make shit happen". In November, 2011, Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative performed his song "Love, That's America" at Zebulon Cafe Concert, two weeks after the venue showed the original video for this song involving Occupy Wall Street footage, which was uploaded to YouTube in October 2011.

On August 21, 2012, he distributed a new album, on vinyl only, called Nahh... Nahh Mofo. This album was distributed at his birthday celebration at Film Forum. On November 10, 2012, he released a video for the song "Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail" to go with the album, which was announced on his Facebook page.

On May 5, 2013, he returned to the Film Forum for a screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and was a judge at the Charlie Chaplin Dress-Alike Contest which was held after the screening. He wore a bowler hat and baggy pants in honor of Chaplin.

In September 2013, Van Peebles made his public debut as a visual artist, as a part of a gallery featured called "eMerge 2.0: Melvin Van Peebles & Artists on the Cusp". It features "Ex-Voto Monochrome (A Ghetto Mother's Prayer)", one of many pieces of art he created to be on display in his home.

In 2017, Methane Momma, a short film directed by Alain Rimbert, featured Van Peebles and his narration of poetic work with accompaniment of music by The Heliocentrics.

In 2019, Burnt Sugar presented the film Sweetback in Brooklyn while playing their own interpretation of the soundtrack. Van Peebles appeared at the presentation.

Personal life

Melvin Van Peebles married Maria Marx. They lived in Mexico for a period in the late 1950s, where he painted portraits. Their son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, was born while they resided in Mexico. The family subsequently returned to the United States.

Van Peebles died on September 22, 2021, at his home in Manhattan, New York, at the age of 89. He is survived by his sons, Mario and Max, and a daughter Marguerite Van Peebles.


  • (As "Melvin Van") The Big Heart, San Francisco: Fearon, 1957. With photographs by Ruth Bernhard, a book about life on San Francisco's cable cars. "A cable car is a big heart with people for blood. The people pump on and off—if you think of it like that it is pretty simple" (p. 21).
  • Un Ours pour le F.B.I. (1964); A Bear for the F.B.I., Trident, 1968.
  • Un Américain en enfer (1965); The True American, Doubleday, 1976.
  • Le Chinois du XIV (1966) (short stories)
  • La Fête à Harlem (Harlem Party) (1967) (novel)
  • La Permission (1967)
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Lancer Books, New York, 1971.
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Bantam, New York, 1973.
  • Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party, Bantam Books, New York, 1973.
  • Just an Old Sweet Song, Ballantine, New York, 1976.
  • Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market, Warner Books, New York, 1986, Template:ISBN (nonfiction)
  • Melvin and Mario Van Peebles: No Identity Crisis, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1990.
  • Panther, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1995.


Year Film Credited as Notes
Director Producer Writer Composer
1957 Three Pickup Men for Herrick Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:No Short
1957 Sunlight Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:Yes Short
1961 Les cinq cent balles (500 Francs) Template:Yes Template:No Template:Yes Template:Yes Short
1967 The Story of a Three-Day Pass (also known as La Permission) Template:Yes Template:No Template:Yes Template:Yes from his novel La Permission
1969 Slogan Template:No Template:No Template:Yes Template:No Screenwriter, Directed by Pierre Grimblat.
1970 Watermelon Man Template:Yes Template:No Template:No Template:Yes
1971 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:Yes Co-producer and also actor
1973 Don't Play Us Cheap Template:Yes Template:No Template:Yes Template:Yes from his book Harlem Party and stage musical Don't Play Us Cheap
1976 Just an Old Sweet Song (also known as Down Home) Template:No Template:No Template:Yes Template:Yes made for television; screenwriter and theme song
1977 Greased Lightning Template:No Template:No Template:Yes Template:No screenwriter
1981 The Sophisticated Gents Template:Yes Template:No Template:Yes Template:No made for television; actor, screenwriter, song "Greased Lightning" and producer
1987 The Day They Came to Arrest the Book Template:No Template:No Template:Yes Template:No made for television; screenwriter
1989 Identity Crisis Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:No Template:No Also actor and editor
1995 Panther Template:No Template:No Template:Yes Template:No based on his novel Panther, screenwriter, actor and producer
1996 Vroom Vroom Vroooom Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:No Template:Yes segment from Tales of Erotica, also known as Erotic Tales. Also Editor
1996 Gang in Blue Template:Yes Template:Yes Template:No Template:No Co-director and also actor
2000 Le Conte du ventre plein (also known as Bellyful) Template:Yes Template:Yes* Template:Yes Template:Yes *Delegate Producer
2008 Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha Template:Yes Template:No Template:No Template:No
2012 Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail Template:Yes Template:No Template:No Template:No Also editor and performer

Other writing credits

As himself

  • Unstoppable (2005)
  • How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (2005)

Other acting-only credits



Studio albums


  • X-Rated By an All-White Jury (1997) – including Brer Soul, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and As Serious as a Heart-Attack

Soundtrack albums

Pages linking in as of Sept 2021

"Moist" Paula Henderson, A Great Night in Harlem, African American cinema, African-American music, Afua Richardson, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (album), Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Akashic Books, Al Goldstein, Album musical, Alex Lozupone, Alfred Preisser, Allen Willis, American Black Film Festival, American Cinematheque, Anderson Henderson White, Andre Fenley, Andréa Ferréol, Armed (film), As Serious as a Heart-Attack, AUDELCO, August 1932, August 21, Avon Long, Avram Fefer, B movie, B movies (exploitation boom), BaadAsssss Cinema, Baadasssss!, Beatnuts Forever, Beatrice Winde, Bellyful, Bernie Casey, Bill Duke, Black Dynamite (TV series), Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Blackout (2007 film), Blaxploitation horror films, Blaxploitation, Bobby Seale, Brer Soul, Carl Gordon (actor), Champeen, Cheryl Dunye, Chester Himes, Cinemation Industries, Classic Nuts, Vol. 1, Classified X, Claude Perron, Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, Courtney B. Vance, Deaths in 2021, December 1917, Dick Anthony Williams, Dick Hallorann, Don't Play Us Cheap (soundtrack), Don't Play Us Cheap, Doug Carn, Earth, Wind & Fire, Esther Rolle, Exploitation film, Fernando Arrabal, Film Quarterly, Films about race, Fist of the North Star (1995 film), Francis Girod, Freakonomics (film), Fritz the Cat (film), Gang in Blue, George Barrow (musician), Ghetto Gothic, Girlfriends (2000 TV series), Gordon Parks, Gotham Independent Film Awards 2008, Grace Jones, Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, Greased Lightning, Guerrilla filmmaking, Hara-Kiri (magazine), Hard Luck, Harry Baird (actor), Hazel Medina, Henry Jarecki, Herman Raucher, Homicide: Life on the Street (season 5), How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), Identity Crisis (film), In the Heat of the Night (TV series), J. R. Bailey, Jacques Boudet, Jamie Hector, Jaws: The Revenge, Jim Brown: All-American, Jo Armstead, Jonathan Kesselman, Just an Old Sweet Song (film), Just an Old Sweet Song, LA Film Festival, La Permission, Lafrae Olivia Sci, Late bloomer, Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail, List of African-American actors, List of biographical films, List of Criterion Collection releases, Lists of African Americans, Living My Life (album), Living Single, Love Kills (film), Love, That's America, Madlib, Malcolm Catto, Mandela Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles, Mario's Green House, Maryland Film Festival, Maurice White, Melvin Van Peebles, Melvin, Midnighter (2015 comic book), Mike Deasy, Nicole Berger, Now-Again Records, O.C. and Stiggs, Off the Books, Ohio Wesleyan University, Ossie Davis, Panther (film), Paramount Theatre (Oakland, California), Passing (racial identity), Paul Tillman Smith, Peebles (surname), Peeples (film), Phoenix, Illinois, Posse (1993 film), Post–civil rights era in African-American history, Post-soul, Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions, Quasimoto, Rainn Wilson, Ralph Bakshi, Rapping, Reactions to Occupy Wall Street, Redemption Road, Rhetta Hughes, Riot (1997 film), Robert Maxwell (cinematographer), Ruth Bernhard, Shaft (1971 film), Sheila Nevins, Shel Silverstein, Shelly Burch, Slogan (film), Sonny Spoon, Sony Hall, Spaceman Patterson, Standing on the Corner (band), Steve Weisberg, Stokely Carmichael, Stone Crazy, Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (soundtrack), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Tales of Erotica, Terminal Velocity (film), The Apple Stretching, The Black List, The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, The Grace Jones Story, The Hebrew Hammer, The Heliocentrics, The Shining (franchise), The Shining (miniseries), The Sophisticated Gents, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, The Unseen (album), The Watermelon Woman, Thisisme Then: The Best of Common, Thornton Township High School, Timeline of African-American history, True Identity, Unstoppable: Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis, Van Peebles, Vrooom Vroom Vroooom, Waltz of the Stork, Washington Park (community area), Chicago, Watermelon Man (film), Wattstax, Wax Poetics, What the....You Mean I Can't Sing?!, Xenon Pictures, Zebulon Cafe Concert

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