Melvin Van Peebles was an iconic actor, writer, director, producer, and legend of Black cinema. Sadly, he passed away on Tuesday night in the comfort of his own home. He was 89.
His son, Mario Van Peebles, confirmed his death and released the following statement to the public:
“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.”
Janus Films and Criterion Collection also confirmed the news via social media and presented the following statement: “In an unparalleled career, distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays, and music. His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th-anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed. pic.twitter.com/HpciXXVoYo
— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) September 22, 2021
Born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Van Peebles began his cinematic journey by creating short films. Once he had a taste for the stuff, he started writing and directing feature films. His first was 1967’s The Story of a Three-Day Pass, about a black American soldier who is demoted for fraternizing with a white girl in France. While Black filmmakers were uncommon in Hollywood at the time, Van Peebles was determined to make his mark. He followed up his first feature with another film titled Watermelon Man. The biting comedy depicted an extremely bigoted white man who finds out the hard (and somewhat humorous) way of what it’s like being a black man.
Steadily becoming known for making the right kind of waves, Van Peebles went on to write, direct, produce, and star in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film about a black male prostitute who, after saving a Black Panther from racist cops, goes on the run from “the man” with the help of the ghetto community and some disillusioned Hells Angels. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song arrived as a quiet hit until word of mouth caused the film to become the highest-grossing indie in movie history at the time. Earth, Wind, and Fire provided the soundtrack, adding to the flavor of an already appetizing cinematic gem.
Van Peebles also dabbled in theater by creating the book, music, and lyrics for Ain’t Supposed to Die a National Death. The show ran for eight months on Broadway, earning Van Peebles two Tony Awards for Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score. A year later Van Peebles wrote the book, lyrics, and music for Don’t Play Us Cheap! Wanting to do more for the production, Van Peebles also directed and produced the stage play. In time, Van Peebles contributed to the Broadway musical Reggae, as well as 1982’s Waltz of the Stork. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Greased Lightning, a biopic starring the great Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a top-level NASCAR race.
In addition to his work behind the stage and screen, Van Peebles acted his pants off as well. He was a series regular in Sonny Spoon, a 1988 detective drama for NBC in which he played the bar-owner father of his real-life son Mario. Van Peebles also appeared in such film projects as Redemption Road, Terminal Velocity, Last Action Hero, True Identity, and Boomerang. On television, he starred in the 1997 miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Shining and had guest roles on shows like Dream On, Girlfriends, All My Children.
Melvin Van Peebles leaves behind a legacy that some can only hope to aspire to. His work was bold, crucial, and imperative to the advancement of Black cinema. He will be sorely missed by his friends, loved ones, and fans. Rest in power, Mr. Van Peebles. We will miss you.