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3 reviews, 15 user ratings

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by Robert Flaxman

"A near-perfect film about all-consuming filmmaking."
5 stars

Thanks in no small part to a hotly-contested presidential race, 2004 seems to have been the year in which documentary films really hit the forefront of cinema. Mario Van Peebles’ re-creation of how his father Melvin made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the seminal 1971 film that launched both black film and independent film, Baadasssss! is not a documentary, but it sure feels like one. Shot documentary-style and featuring several confessional interview sequences with in-character actors, the film’s realism and outstanding use of tone and sense of time and place make it one of the most perfectly executed films of the year.

Starting in 1970 just as Melvin has signed a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures following the success of his film Watermelon Man, Baadasssss! quickly deals with Sweetback’s genesis (evidently the idea came to him in the desert and he wrote it quickly over two weeks) and then moves to the issue of getting it made, including the struggle for financing, union problems, and the writer/director/star’s all-consuming desire to make the film by any means necessary.

In one of the confessional sequences, Melvin’s agent refers to Melvin’s vision as self-indulgent, but really nothing could be further from the truth. As depicted, Melvin’s drive to complete a film whose message he believed in very nearly cost him everything, and the film’s eventual success offended studio execs and made him persona non grata in Hollywood for most of the next three decades. If nothing else, the film was a major sacrifice for him.

Mario honors his father’s sacrifice in his single-minded depiction of Sweetback’s rigors. His performance as Melvin channels a full-blooded intensity, and as a director he draws the focus so tight that the spotlight is never off (except for the interview sequences, Melvin appears in nearly every shot in the film). Even sequences with the young Mario are never overplayed – Mario draws some attention to the relationship, but resists the temptation to dwell on it. This is Melvin’s show, and Mario is sure we know it.

The film wouldn’t have suffered from going a bit deeper into the relationships, though. The narrow focus on Melvin and the making of Sweetback in particular makes for a compelling story, but the potential emotions generated by a little more interpersonal focus could only have been to the film’s benefit.

Still, Baadasssss! is already near-perfect for the way it tells Melvin’s story through tone, pacing, and cinematography. The start of the film is fluid and fun to watch as Melvin is optimistic about Sweetback’s future; as things unravel, the pace gets more frenetic and Mario starts playing with optical effects to represent his father’s frazzled mental state. All told, the film features one of the most controlled, subtly effective uses of camerawork to establish tone since Michael Mann’s 1999 masterwork The Insider.

What really makes the film so perfect is its unwavering belief in its subject and his vision. Whether or not one agrees with Melvin (though it’s hard to see where the quibble would lie, since he had a definite point about the lack of minority heroes in film and clearly was not prejudiced against whites simply for being white), the film is with him all the way and carries the viewer with it. Were this story fictional, there would undoubtedly be a key scene with Melvin questioning himself, wondering if he has what it takes to see the project through. This clearly didn’t happen, though, and Baadasssss! refuses to even hint at such self-doubt. At a couple of points in the film, Melvin envisions himself, dressed as Sweetback, telling him the film will fail. Melvin doesn’t indulge these visions for even a second, though, berating his doppelganger until it leaves.

Mario deserves an incredible amount of credit for the way he brings the story to the screen. His fierce lead performance and outstanding direction anchor the film, and his screenplay (written with Dennis Haggerty and based on Melvin’s book) is near-flawless, using both narration and the confessional sequences to their full faux-documentary potential. That the film shows no signs of its tight 18-day shoot (amazingly enough, a day shorter than Sweetback itself) is only more of a testament to the talent assembled, and its documentary feel is a credit to the entire cast, all of whom give the proceedings a natural vibe.

It plays like a documentary, but Baadasssss! is even better – it gets the advantage of being able to use higher-quality film, and thus look nicer, and it can control its own pace and tone, which it does exquisitely. It may only be a re-creation, but Baadasssss! feels just as true as any documentary out there, and its sustained excellence makes it one of the best films, period, of this or any year.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8501&reviewer=385
originally posted: 01/26/05 02:48:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2004 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/30/11 Phineas Total BS about petulant,Black racist no-talents making early Kill Whitey "movie" of 1970s. 1 stars
10/20/10 millersxing This film testifies to the power of one man's struggle against racial hubris. 5 stars
3/30/09 Phineasandhiskillerspear Anti-White BS lies about making of 10th-rate,racist movie,cuz it was made by a Black.HUBRIS 1 stars
1/02/08 mr.mike More than holds its own against "Boogie Nights" 4 stars
3/10/06 Tanya loved it very entertaining 5 stars
8/05/05 Zack Great film! 5 stars
7/06/05 Isaac Baranoff Classic film about a classic film. 5 stars
3/19/05 Landshark Van Peebles & Co. revive a bygone era with charm and poignancy 5 stars
3/19/05 Tay Okay movie, the acting was not all that great at times 3 stars
2/03/05 Tanya Grays Loved it 5 stars
1/28/05 keith james BAAD-ASSSS AS IN GOOD, VERY GOOD 5 stars
1/26/05 Lucas A made-for-cable soul / bad acting / terrible dialogue / shames his father 1 stars
11/03/04 Caiphn Decent flick, drags at times, first thirty minutes are great. 4 stars
5/25/04 Caroline Lopez It was a great movie 5 stars
5/01/04 stenobabe vaguely interesting subject, rotten prod. values - incl acting. sorry. 2 stars
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  28-May-2004 (R)
  DVD: 14-Sep-2004



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