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Van Peebles scores with look back at 'Sweetback'

"Baadasssss!" is Mario Van Peebles's fond, tough-minded reconstruction of the trials Melvin Van Peebles endured while making the groundbreaking black independent film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" in 1971. You don't need to have seen the father's movie to enjoy the son's, a multitiered fantasia that's part cinema history, part family reunion, and all hall of mirrors. For one thing, Mario plays his dad and, as such, directs a younger version of himself (played by Khleo Thomas) in the infamous opening sequence of "Sweetback." A few more scenes like this, you think, and Van Peebles will end up his own Grandpa -- but, whoops, that's Ossie Davis.

The unavoidable irony of "Baadasssss!" -- that it's a much better movie than the one it honors -- is one-upped by the fact that "Sweetback" was and will always be the more important film, a blurt of conscious rage that said things never before heard in movie theaters. With a score by a then-unknown group called Earth, Wind & Fire, it told the tale of a ghetto hustler (played by Van Peebles the elder) who kills two racist cops and runs and runs and runs some more. The acting was ragged but the faces real; the locations were street; the anger unforgiving and precise. Oh, and the female characters say little and wear even less; the absurd wall-to-wall sexism of "Sweetback" is an accurate and unexamined reflection of its era.

The film was a success, though, and it influenced pop culture in ways that almost can't be measured. (To name just one consequence, a screenplay about a white detective named John Shaft quickly went into rewrite.) Mario Van Peebles puts our finger on the pulse of this long-ago moment by filming with a fevered rush of adrenaline that memorializes his father's do-anything, use-anyone stubbornness. "Baadasssss!" swirls with the excesses of Los Angeles in the late '60s, but it retains a tempered admiration for the few who held on to their convictions.

For all that, this is a comedy of Hollywood, and a very enjoyable one. "Baadasssss!" fits neatly into the filmmaking-as-disaster genre right next to "Living in Oblivion," "Ed Wood," and "Bowfinger," and it gets its deepest laughs from the Job-like persecutions that Melvin Van Peebles brings upon himself. He walks away from a lucrative studio deal and drives his agent (Saul Rubinek) crazy with a meshugenah script about a cop-killing superstud; he hires a porn producer (David Alan Grier) to keep the unions at bay. His producer (Rainn Wilson) is a hippie burnout; potential backers range from a gay fading star (TV "Batman" Adam West) to the singer Donovan (Troy Garity) to Bill Cosby, played with cigar-chomping vocal accuracy by T.K. Carter.

The crew is even more motley: The sound team alone consists of tiny, white Tommy (Ralph Martin) and hulking, black Big T (Terry Crews, who almost steals the film). Melvin's secretary, Priscilla (Joy Bryant), is continually auditioning for a role until her boyfriend finds out about the nude scenes, at which point the filmmaker drafts bodacious party girl Ginnie (Karimah Westbrook) for what she thinks is a date. The boyfriend (Khalil Kain) turns out to be Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, so everything's OK.

It's in the scenes between Mario as Melvin and Thomas as Mario that "Baadasssss!" cuts to the heart of the matter. The son was 13 when his old man risked all -- including the love of his wife (Nia Long) and children -- and Mario's anger and pride still feel fresh. When Melvin casts his son to play the young Sweet Sweetback losing his virginity, the results are hilariously awful: Everyone tells the director he's out of his mind, but the man's in the grip of a filmmaker's passion, and on some level both the young Mario and the older Mario -- the one making this movie -- respect that. It's telling, though, that "Baadasssss!" doesn't actually show the opening scene of "Sweetback" itself. Still queasy and just plain wrong, it would upset the son's case.

Said case is for family reconciliation and historic triumph, the latter coming at a Detroit inner city theater where "Sweet Sweetback" finally opens in a do-or-die one-night stand. The details are charming -- the theater is run by a pair of fussy Jewish identical twins (both played by Len Lesser) who warm to this madman filmmaker -- but the point of "Baadasssss!" and "Sweetback" is contained in the single image of Melvin flashing back to his own Depression-era moviegoing, gazing at the step-'n'-fetch-it lies on the screen, and defiantly shaking his head. With this film, his son nods in agreement and respect.

Ty Burr can be reached at

Written and directed by: Mario Van Peebles
Starring: Van Peebles, Rainn Wilson, Khleo Thomas, David Alan Grier, Nia Long, Ossie Davis, Joy Bryant, Terry Crews, T.K. Carter
At: Kendall Square, Embassy Cinema
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: R (pervasive language, strong sexuality/nudity)

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