Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89
Filmmaking legend Melvin Van Peebles, whose contributions to the movies have led to him being dubbed the Godfather of Black Cinema, died Tuesday at his home. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his son, actor Mario Van Peebles, who said in a statement, “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.”
Criterion Collection tweeted, "Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape."
Van Peebles was born on August 21, 1932, in Chicago. A self-taught filmmaker, he began writing and directing shorts with 1957's "Pickup Men for Herrick" after publishing his first book. He made his debut as a recording artist with 1968's "Brer Soul."
He made his first big splash with the influential feature "Watermelon Man" (1970), about a white man who wakes up Black.
Van Peebles' 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," a blaxploitation epic, was a monster hit — and one he wrote, directed, produced, and in which he acted. It became the highest-grossing indie film in history at the time, propelled the creators of its soundtrack — Earth, Wind & Fire — to stardom, and is a Library of Congress National Film Registry film.
His son Melvin's 2003 movie "BAADASSSSS!" documented the making of his dad's most famous film, as did a documentary from 2005, "How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)."
He was also noted for writing two Broadway musicals with Black themes — the Tony-winning "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" (1971) and "Don't Play Us Cheap!" (1972).
In his diverse career, he also acted on the soap opera "All My Children" (2008). Later in life, he continued to perform live music, cut records, became a fine artist, and continued directing features, shorts, and TV episodes.
Van Peebles is survived by his son.
FIlmmaker Ava DuVernay remembered him on Twitter with one of his quotes: "You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework you have. And don’t look outside. Look inside.”