By Mike Zwerin
August 2002 - Taking time out from the intensive rehearsals of the
musical review which he cast and was directing, choreographing and
singing and starring in, Melvin Van Peebles explained: "I shoot
the breeze between numbers, sort of like Charles Aznavour." He is
not the sort of person who suffers from stage-fright.
evening titled Melvin Van Peebles et ses Potes ("And His
Pals") featuring Van Peebles's own songs and gospel, rhythm and
blues and jazz adaptations of the songs of the 19th century cabaret
artist Aristide Bruant was recently presented in Café de la
Danse, near the Bastille.
In principle, this one performance
would be the end of it. Which was fine with him. Van Peebles "can't
think of anything I'd rather be doing right now." Any hope he
admits he may harbor for a longer run is not due to pressing need: "I
don't have a mistress and I don't have a car. As Thoreau said, you're
rich in relation to what your needs are."
of low overhead is indeed relative in the wide world of moving
pictures, where Van Peebles is best known. What is considered Robert
Altman's down-and-out period in Paris in the early 1990s included a
chauffer-driven sedan and a stylish cozy Left Bank apartment across
the Seine from Notre Dame. Van Peebles, whose low overhead covers
residences in New York, Los Angeles and Pigalle, rose to the level of
what one journalist called an "iconic presence" after he
produced, directed, starred in and wrote the music for Sweet
Sweetback's Baadassss Song, a controversial movie about a black
man on the run after killing two white policemen. Made in 1971 for
$500,000 (10% of it borrowed from Bill Cosby), it was dedicated to "all
the brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man." It
grossed $10 million in the first year and spawned Hollywood's
so-called "Blaxploitation" trend, a credit he is not
particularly proud of: "The term really has nothing to do with
me. It has a derogatory sense to it. You know, everybody tries to keep
us in our place with these limiting labels."
film, produced in France in 1967, was La Permission , or The
Story of a Three Day Pass, about a romance between an African
American soldier and a French woman. Watermelon Man (1970)
starred Godfrey Cambridge playing a white bigot who wakes up black one
day. He wrote the screenplay for Greased Lightening (1977),
with Richard Pryor playing the black race-car driver Wendell Scott. In
1995, co-producing with his son Mario, who directed it (Mario recently
portrayed Malcolm X
in Ali), Van Peebles wrote the script for Panther,
a fictionalized account of the rise of the Black Panther Party For
Self Defense. The Panthers had declared Sweetback required
viewing for its members. VanPeebles was "pleased they recognized
it. I was in complete sympathy with the Panthers."
Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks, a book about black
filmmakers, Donald Bogle called Sweet Sweetback "an
uncompromising, totally independent trailblazer that heralded a new
kind of black cinema, and inspired a later generation of African
American movie-makers like Spike Lee and Albert and Allen Hughes."
While a student at Ohio Weslyan University in Delaware, Ohio, the
future "Godfather of black film" was, he remembered, "sent
to Coventry" because of his independent attitude: "What did
I care? You know? I felt sorry for them being denied my company."
He's currently writing a novel - his 13th book - on speculation,
without a contract. "If the manuscript is rejected," he
said, "the way I look at it, it will be the publisher being
stupid. My point of view has always been that if the girl turns me
down she's an obvious lesbian."
This outburst of what
some might consider outrageously macho positive-thinking is more
likely some sort of "bad brother" shtick. It was, in any
case, followed by a smile and a pregnant pause. The self-confidence is
real enough, though the macho was, I trusted, faux. Van
Peebles seems to be daring you to look behind this particular role it
is now amusing him to play. It is tempered by his sweet bad voice and
a straight-faced ironic twinkle partly hidden by black-rimmed Harold
Lloyd eyeglasses and the pulled-down visor of a 1920s James Cagney
gangster cap. With his grandfatherly gray beard, laid back hip manner
and wide frame of reference, he resembles his fellow icon, the late
adorable elder statesman of jazz - he places a respectful hand over
his heart at the mention of the name - Slim ("vout-o-roonie")
Gaillard was an apple farmer in the State of
Washington. Van Peebles was one of the first black traders on the New
York Stock Exchange. His book, Bold Money: A New Way To Play The
Options Market (1986) is still in print. Both of them were in the
US Air Force - Gaillard a maintenance engineer in the groundbreaking
black fighter squadron during World War II, Van Peebles the navigator
and only black crew member on a B-47 bomber in Korea. He recalled: "They
all had thick southern accents. You would have thought I was an
albino, the way they treated me. They were unbelievably nice. They'd
say, 'Y'all got to come down to our Bar-B-Q on Saturday.' Because they
all knew that if the navigator makes a mistake, everybody dies."
Van Peebles was reminded of his wartime experience when Halle Berry
and Denzil Washington won Academy Awards: "Basically they owe
their Oscars to the Taliban. When Americans are in trouble, suddenly
we're all Americans somehow."
Called an enfant
terrible , a Renaissance man and a one-man conglomerate, he has
been a cable-car grip-man in San Francisco, a portrait painter in
Mexico, he studied astronomy in Holland and he was a street musician
and a journalist in Paris. He can write in French. He had just
finished shooting one of a continuing series of character roles - a
gangster in a movie that "doesn't have a name yet." The way
he put it, putting it mildly: "I have various arrows in my
When his albums Br'er Soul and Ain't
Supposed to Die A Natural Death,"both reissued, were first
released by A&M Records in the late 1950s, that sort of thing was
still filed under "spoken word." The recordings influenced
other rap precursors such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. "Actually,"
Van Peebles said, with his straight-faced twinkle: "It wasn't
really me who invented rap. I stole the idea from Aristide Bruant."
His music for Sweet Sweetback was performed by the then
unknown group Earth, Wind & Fire; the soundtrack was their first
He wrote the book, lyrics and music for and
co-produced the Broadway musical: Don't Play Us Cheap. It was
nominated for three Tony and two Grammy awards. In 1997, he performed
in a cabaret set called Br'er Soul And Roadkill in the Fez café
in New York. According to Jon Pareles in the New York Times, he "turned
rock, pop, Broadway and disco songs into extensions of his own
down-home philosophy. As he sees it, most of us are roadkill on the
highway of love."
The idea for the friendly musical
review near the Bastille was born last year when Van Peebles was
invited to the film festival Festival des Trois Continents in
Nantes. He thanked them but said: "I don't have a film this year."
The festival's director replied: "No, we want you to be the
entertainment." Why not, he thought. Van Peebles had nothing
better to do and, he reasoned: "I'm too short to play basketball
and too nervous to steal." He took out the song and dance arrow
from his quiver once more and cast six young French Nantais singers
(three female, three male) and six musicians. They were, he said, "excited
about it. It's an adventure for them, an opportunity to grow."
Selecting songs from Ain't Supposed To Die. and Sweetback
and elsewhere, he put some demos together and told everybody to "get
as close as possible to my partitions" - advanced
Franglais for "arrangements." "Save any suggestions for
when I come back," he said, and when he did he was more than
impressed: "Oh, man, man, man, man, man! These people are
terrific. They are so talented and positive. They really want to do it
the right way. Like Quincy Jones says; 'You've got to leave room for
God in these things.'
"It's another frame of reference
in France. I have to be totally specific in order to get the right
feeling, the right texture. It's not New York, I can't just ask them
to sound like the horns at the beginning of some Marvin Gaye record,
or to 'put in some Monk.' I have to micro-manage. It's time-intensive
work. I'm also my own sound and light director. There's no way I can
delegate all of these responsibilities. Not that I have problems with
any of it. I keep saying to myself: 'For once God got it right.'"
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic
for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was
also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is
currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for
Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.