Date of Award
Master of Arts
Mass Communication and Media Arts
Melvin Van Peebles is best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and that film’s role in inspiring the Blaxploitation cycle of films of the early 1970s. However, it was in France, where he had emigrated like other black creatives in the 1960s, that Van Peebles became a filmmaker. Drawing on biographical research and a close reading of his films, I connect Van Peebles to the institutions and aesthetics of the French New Wave. Van Peebles radicalizes New Wave techniques by employing them to illuminate issues of racism. I generate a new reading of Sweetback which connects the experimental aesthetics and the political stance of the film to cinematic innovations of the French New Wave and the militant politics of the black power movement. By categorizing Sweetback as Blaxploitation film, critics often misread the Sweetback character’s class position. By using the framework of the lumpenproletarian folk hero, I reframe Sweetback’s differences with Blaxploitation protagonists. Finally, I read the film within the traditions of Brechtian theatrical theory by introducing the concept of popular realism and the language of black power, imperfection, absurdity, and militancy. Enormously popular with a younger black audience, Sweetback’s release coincided with a new black power movement and a shift in a self-consciousness political and aesthetic awareness for African-Americans. Sweetback played a role in dispersing and invigorating representations of black independence and new aesthetic norms through a connection with a mass political organization, the Black Panther Party - a singular achievement in U.S. film history.
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