Godfather of Black Cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, passes away at age 89

Melvin Van Peebles
Director Melvin Van Peebles

Daytime Emmy Award Winner, actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, composer, and Godfather of Black cinema, Melvin Van Peebles has passed away at age 89 at his home in Manhattan. 

His death was confirmed by his son, Mario Van Peebles, who said in a statement: “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Melvin Van Peebles was best known for his independent films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. He was also the father of Mario Van Peebles, with whom he wrote and directed the movie Panther in 1995.

Van Peebles inspired a generation of young filmmakers to be active. His early movies were shot on micro budgets and shot through with provocative, politically charged humor. He played the main role in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the landmark 1971 film that was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year.

He was Born Melvin Peebles on August 21, 1932 in Chicago, Illinois. 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. 

After working as a cable car gripman in San Francisco, Van Peebles shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick in 1957, and made two more short films during the same period. He then began his feature writing and directing career with 1967’s The Story of a Three-Day Pass, about a Black GI who is demoted for a romance with a white shop clerk in Paris. 

Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man was a savage satire that focused on a white bigot who awakens one day to discover he’s Black. Columbia Pictures wanted him to cast a white actor, put him in Blackface, and have a happy ending, in which he magically switched back. Van Peebles insisted on putting Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface, if only for the opening stretch, and having him instead evolve into a passionate Black nationalist.

Van Peebles then helped pave the way for the renegade genre known as Blaxploitation, with movies that were bitingly funny, sexually swaggering and occasionally violent, that put Black protagonists front and center. His heroes were hustlers and revolutionaries; Sweetback was considered so outrageous, it was originally rated X. It was also a huge financial success.

His list of credits is far too vast to list in their entirety, however his impact on American cinema will never be forgotten. 

Hollywood paid fast and heartfelt tribute to director Melvin Van Peebles including the Directors Guild of America, Jason Isbell, Ava DuVernay, Criterion Collection, Kyle Cassidy, David Alan Grier, Mathew A. Cherry, Holly Robinson Peete, Barry Jenkins, MC Hammer, and Spike Lee, just to name a few. 

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Directors Guild of America President Lesli Linka Glatter made the following statement upon learning of the passing of Melvin Van Peebles:

“We lost a true legend today in so many senses of the word. Melvin Van Peebles was a cinematic icon whose bold and unapologetic work exploded on the scene, capturing the attention of our culture, inspiring the hearts and minds of so many, and influencing the work of countless filmmakers. Melvin was a constant presence at the Guild, always supporting and nurturing his fellow filmmakers. He also served on the Eastern Directors Council, and was proudly honored by the African American Steering Committee for his numerous contributions. Melvin’s mark on cinema will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

Hollywood, both Black and white, were quick to pay tribute:

Instead of Twitter, Academy Award winner Spike Lee reacted on Instagram with this post:

His death came shortly before the 50th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and a celebration planned by the New York Film Festival. The Criterion Collection planned a box set to be released next week called Melvin Van Peebles: Essential FilmsSweet Sweetback will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week for a 50th anniversary tribute. 

Van Peebles is survived by his sons Mario and Max, daughter Marguerite and 11 grandchildren.