Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Released:  1971

Cast:  Melvin Van Peebles, Hubert Scales, Simon Chuckster

SUMMARY:  As a child, an African American boy is raised in a brothel in a Los Angeles after being orphaned.  As a teenager, he has an encounter with one of the prostitutes there, who names him “Sweet Sweetback” (Melvin Van Peebles).  Sweetback remains in the brothel even after he grows up, becoming a performer in a sex show.  One evening, two white cops arrive at the brothel to talk to the owner, Beetle (Simon Chuckster).  A black man has recently been murdered, and the cops are under pressure to bring somebody in, to prove that they are working on things.  They ask Beetle to let them take one of his men into the station, hold him for a few days, then release him for lack of evidence.  Beetle asks Sweetback to go with them, and he agrees.  Because it is a farce, the police do not bother to handcuff Sweetback.  However, on the drive to the station they unexpectedly have to deal with a situation involving a Black Panther.  For appearances, Sweetback is now handcuffed.  When they capture the Black Panther, a man named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales), they cuff him to Sweetback.  However, Mu-Mu begins to insult the officers, so they begin to beat him while he is still cuffed to Sweetback.  The cops stop beating Mu-Mu and undo the cuffs, leaving one bracelet on Sweetback, then resume the beating.  Sweetback then uses the loose cuff as brass knuckles and beats the two cops until they are unconscious.

The cops soon die from their injuries.  Sweetback decides to head for Mexico, but is quickly picked up by a pair of police officers.  They beat him up, but he again escapes, and finds someone to finally remove the handcuffs.  He then finds Mu-Mu, and the pair is driven out of the city by some friends.  They continue by foot at night, until they run into a group of Hells Angels.  They are taken prisoner by the gang, whose leader turns out to be a woman.  She decides to release the pair after having sex with Sweetback.  The bikers hide the pair in a shed, but they are again found by the police.  Again, Sweetback beats them into unconsciousness.  One of the bikers arrives to help them escape, but can only take one man with him.  Sweetback tells him to take Mu-Mu, saying that he “is the future”; he then continues the journey on foot.  A huge manhunt ensues, and the biker and Mu-Mu are eventually killed.  Sweetback continues into the desert, now pursued by helicopters in addition to the police cars.  He stumbles through the desert through hours, until he is finally stopped by the pursuing officers.  However, they discover that the man is not really Sweetback at all — it’s a white man who had been paid to trade clothes with Sweetback, then take off running.  The chase continues, this time with dogs.  However, Sweetback manages to elude everybody and cross the river to get into Mexico.

MY TAKE:  On the one level, this movie is impressive, because Melvin Van Peebles nearly did it by himself:  he directed, produced, wrote, starred in, and composed the music for it.  His own son played the younger version of Sweetback.  For any one person to be able to do all of this deserves some respect.  However, Prince did pretty much the same thing with Purple Rain, and that was a much better movie than this.  Apparently the moral of this story is that you can get out of any fix if your equipment is big enough.  The summary says that Sweetback turns into a radical after seeing the white cops beat Mu-Mu, but this doesn’t really happen.  What does happen is he freaks out, beats a bunch of cops to death, and runs through the desert FOREVER.  The film is really herky-jerky, like there’s no transition between scenes.  Due to this and the lack of story, I didn’t have a very high opinion of the film already.  And then he started running through the desert.  Seriously, I think this took up 20 minutes of the movie, and it was awful.  I basically stopped watching and just waited for the end.  It’s like the less interesting, cheaper version of Shaft.  The only thing I found interesting was the biker who helps Mu-Mu escape:  it’s John Amos, who went on to play the older version of Kunta Kinte in Roots.

RATING:  Awful.

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