Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Van Peebles's 'Watermelon'-Flavored Weekend at Film Forum

To hear him tell it, Melvin Van Peebles had Joe Angio totally fooled. “Originally, I think, in his mind, Joe had me in amber already,” he said, recalling the early stages of Angio’s new film about Van Peebles’s life and career, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). “He came over and said, ‘What are you doing now?’ Of course, I had 95 things on the agenda. I said, ‘I’ve got my little group and we’ll be playing… ‘ He said, ‘You’ve got a group?’ I said, ‘Yeah, man, we’ll be playing soon.’ He said, ‘No shit?’ So Joe wanted to get that. He said, ‘Boy, that was great. What are you doing now?’ I said, ‘I’m getting ready to shoot a film in France.’ ‘What? What?’ Gotta have that in the movie.”

Sweetback in the day: Melvin Van Peebles in 1971 (Photos: Breakfast at NoHo/Film Forum)

Indeed, Angio got to have that and decades more of the legendary filmmaker’s personal history in his documentary, which opens this weekend as part of a six-film Van Peebles retrospective at Film Forum. An engaging survey of a relatively mellow guy whose incendiery output polarizes audiences to this day, Watermelon functions as one part biography and one part diagram of how revolutionaries are made. The delineations are pretty much all here: Van Peebles’s awkward upbringing on Chicago’s South Side; his turn as an Air Force pilot (flying with an atomic bomb, no less); his unceremonious dismissal from a cable car operator’s job in San Francisco; and the subsequent European sojourn during which he found his calling as a writer/director/novelist/journalist/artist/musician/you name it.
All of which, of course, culminated in one of the great independent film coups in cinema history: 1971’s groundbreaking, haymaking classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The movie’s myth is nothing you have not seen or heard elucidated a thousand times before (even by Van Peebles’s own son Mario, whose Baadasssss! will screen with the documentary Jan. 23), with its love-or-hate status often (and unfairly) overriding its ageless quality as black culture’s raw, stoic and defining call to arms.

Angio’s own first viewing of Sweetback transcended judgment, he said; it was more of an experience–one influential enough to fuel an exhaustive pursuit of Van Peebles’s legacy. Working by day as Vibe Magazine’s managing editor, Angio had already compiled stacks of research (“an FBI file,” he said, “like I was stalking him or something”) on his subject when he met his friend Michael Solomon for lunch in 1996. “I was really dying to make a film at that point,” Angio told The Reeler. “It had been like four years, and I had been following this magazine track. There was this other film I was going to work on. He said, ‘Are you going to try to revive that one?’ I said, ‘No. The film I really want to make is about Melvin Van Peebles.’ And Michael says, ‘Joe, I know Melvin really well.’ ”
A noted indie stalwart himself, Solomon arranged a meeting between the filmmakers and eventually signed on as the producer for Angio’s 10-year journey. Van Peebles granted Angio and Solomon full access–on one condition. “That was the caveat,” Van Peebles said. ” ‘OK, guys, do what you want to, but just leave me alone. I’ll tell you who, but I don’t want to become involved in the bricks and mortar of the thing.’ And I didn’t want to. The major reason–the only reason–is that I’m a lazy piece of shit.”
Obviously, Van Peebles was being facetious, and Watermelon shows why. Angio portrays his subject as a tireless dervish of work, with his self-financed endeavors each possessing tumuluous histories of struggle. As an expatriate in Paris in the ’60s, Van Peebles taught himself French as a means of breaking into the city’s film scene; his grasp of the language developed so thoroughly he managed a handful of French novels and even some scoops for Paris newspapers. His musical career–specifically as the rap prototype Brer Soul–flourished around the time of Sweetback’s release, even with Van Peebles composing all of his songs in a self-invented numeric notation.
And after breaking into Hollywood with his 1970’s racial satire Watermelon Man, Van Peebles has spent virtually every year since financing his own films. As such, he “own(s) it all. I have no partners. I own every fucking thing.” His business acumen was not limited to film, either; he famously landed on the floor of the American Stock Exchange as a trader in the late 1980s, and Angio features an illuminating aside on how Van Peebles natural talent for dealmaking provided the momentum for his long career.
Watermelon comprises a virtually endless supply of archival footage and interviews, much of which Angio culled from Van Peebles’s own library. “In his home, he has a tape of everything he’s ever been in or done,” Angio said. “It was a couple of years into it, and I said, ‘Melvin, can I just go through this stuff?’ ‘Yeah, OK.’ I meticulously marked everything, because he has stuff in the bedroom, stuff in the bedroom closet, stuff in the hallway closet, and I was like, ‘OK, this came from the third row of the… .’ I wanted to put everything back where I found it.” It was not until midway through production that Angio discovered a video of a one-man show that Van Peebles had performed at the Henry Street Settlement circa 1997. “It’s basically his life story. I was like, ‘Melvin, were you planning on telling me you had this?’ ”
If Watermelon has an information vacuum, it concerns Melvin Van Peebles as a father. Interviews with his three adult children–Mario, Max and Megan–reveal little about the impact Van Peebles’s itinerant-playboy-workaholic lifestyle had on their family, and Van Peebles himself offers little to no insight on fatherhood or how his career influenced his kids professionally and personally. “It wasn’t so much that we wanted to leave it out,” Angio told me when I asked about the omission. “We asked about it, but it’s just that the answers were so matter-of-fact, you know? It wasn’t like there was anyoine going toward any kernel of a great, unknown truth. I felt like you get at it through Megan’s comment about [Van Peebles’s girlfriends], which is just sort of like, ‘This is him, we know this is him. We know he loves us, but we have to accept him on his terms. This is not going to be a traditional father figure for us.’ …
“Every time we kind of played with it, it just took us down a path that was hard to come back from–to get back into the narrative flow of the piece. And I felt that ultimately, it wasn’t all that illuminating. I felt like you could infer how he was as dad through what we do say. And kind of by what wasn’t said.”
But as a pop culture artifact and even something of a guerilla-filmmaking tutorial, Watermelon hits its mark. Angio handles his story’s racial dynamic tastefully, threading symbols of Van Peebles’s social influence throughout the film without resorting to the didactic tricks of some of his own subject’s most grating work (face it: Watermelon Man has aged pretty brutally). Mostly, though, Angio manages an elaborate, loving piece of fan mail without patronizing or over-romanticizing its addressee. Van Peebles may be brilliant, Angio says, but he achieved what he has through the lack of any real alternative. And while Van Peebles acknowledges a helping of luck here or timing there, in the end, he makes the films he has to make the only way he can–by himself.
“My modus operandi is the follwing,” said Van Peebles, referring to his past work as much as his current project, the brilliantly Memories of an Ex-Dufus Mother. “I go and I try to get people come in with me on a situation–a movie or a this or that. And nobody ever will. And so after a certain tiem, I say, ‘Ah, what the hell. I’ll just do it myself. That’s why I own Sweetback. Same with the Broadway show or the other things. And then there is this situation again. People say, ‘Mel, what are you doing?’ And then when I say what I’m doing, they say, ‘Yeah, but if you did such-and-such…’ No–this is what I’m doing. It’s quite amazing that with my successful track record that just have to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“But…” Van Peebles laughs, sighs. “So what?”

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Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
Also Debuting
The Hate U Give 0.17 36
Shine 85,600 609
Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
96 61,600 62
Andhadhun 55,000 54
Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4.8 (1,630) -26% 181.1
The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
Let's Be Cops 4.3 (1,570) -22% 73
If I Stay 4.0 (1,320) -28% 44.9
The November Man 2.8 (1,030) -36% 22.5
The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4