The cherished, pioneering, and accomplished director/writer/actor Melvin Van Peebles has died at the age of 89 at his home in New York City on Tuesday (Sept. 21). The genius behind films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man was surrounded by his family at the time of his passing.
The tragic news was confirmed by his son, Mario Van Peebles. The 64-year-old shared on social media, “As the so-called Godfather of modern Black cinema, he’s not just my dad; he’s your dad, too.” Mario and his siblings flew to New York because they knew the Don’t Play Us Cheap director did not want to pass away at a hospital and brought him home instead. Mario revealed that his father seemed relieved and “had gone in his way at his time.”
Born on Aug. 21, 1932, in Chicago, Melvin Van Peebles started his career in filmmaking after a passenger suggested it during his time as a cable car gripman in San Francisco. He started out creating short films—Three Pickup Men for Herrick and Sunlight. He went on to study the craft overseas in France while also publishing four novels, a collection of short stories, and a play. Van Peebles directed his first feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass in 1968. Upon it winning an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival as the French entry, it garnered the attention from producers in Hollywood.
This led to the creation of his first Hollywood film, Watermelon Man (1970). IMDb describes the film as what happens when “an extremely bigoted white man finds out the hard (and somewhat humorous) way what it’s like being a black man, firsthand!” Then came his groundbreaking 1971 blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a project in which he wrote, directed, starred in, wrote the score, and directed the marketing campaign. The film was placed in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year.
Van Peebles went on to have a successful run on Broadway and continued to write and direct films until 2012. He also made guest appearances on All My Children, Living Single, and Girlfriends.
In a statement, Mario expressed, “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.”
Townsend wrote, “A cinematic king is dead… He was an outspoken rebel that never backed down… A visionary genius that created the blue print for independent film makers of color. I exist because of him. His brilliance will be missed and my heart goes out to his family at this time especially my friend @MarioVanPeebles. Melvin Van Peebles took all of the slings and arrows that we may live.”
Lee described Van Peebles as his “brother who brought independent Black cinema to the forefront.” Jenkins wrote, “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED.”
He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED pic.twitter.com/IIpfU8wI7q
— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) September 22, 2021
VIBE sends our sincere condolences to the Van Peebles family.