Deserves props for: Making three landmarks in cinema: The Story of a 3-Day Pass, Watermelon Man and, most memorably, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. He's also been at various points an Air Force navigator, a San Francisco cable car operator, a musician, a Broadway playwright and a Wall Street stock trader, all of which is covered in the new doc on Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).
What do you think about all the attention you've been getting over the last couple years, with some of your films making it to DVD, your son Mario's film about you [Baadasssss!] and now this documentary?
"Would you like the politically correct answer or the truth?"
"I deserve it."
What's the politically correct answer?
"I'm quite honored that history has finally caught up with the facts."
Has all this made it easier to get projects off the ground?
"Well, I'm always doing something new--but under exactly the same conditions as before. Nobody will come in to help. They always say, 'Oh, Melvin, you're crazy.' And then it works and people go, 'Oh!' I find it very difficult to get people to understand what I'm saying until it's finished. When it's finished, it's commercial, it's fine and it works out. Otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation."
What's your project now?
"It's a feature called Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Mutha. Don't laugh. See, people always say, 'Come on. Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death? That's the title?' Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Mutha--that's the movie! It's what we call picturesque. It's the whole wasted life of a guy from childhood to adulthood. It's a lot of fun, it's poignant, all that good stuff."
Did the studios ever bother calling you up after Sweetback?
"No. I was, for lack of a better term, blackballed. After Watermelon Man I had many offers, but when I went out on my own, we did something that was past the radical point. Independent film was considered a big no-no. You have to understand the context. People often refer to Sweetback as a black film, but it wasn't the largest grossing black film--it was the largest grossing independent film that had ever been made. Hollywood felt independent film was in direct competition with the Hollywood system. Now they've learned to co-opt or preempt it. But back then, I wasn't welcome. It was twofold: I was a person of color and a maverick."
How much has changed in terms of black filmmaking since Sweetback?
"Look, I just told you--I'm making a film now all alone because no one will help me, Hollywood or anyone else. I ain't seen shit changed."
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) screens this week at International House (see Repertory Film). It also airs on Thurs., Feb. 15, 9pm. IFC
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