One of the first Broadway plays I
ever saw was Melvin Van Peeble’s Ain’t
Supposed to Die a Natural Death. A.
Robert Phillips, who led the Black Talent Program at Boston College,
arranged for a group of us undergraduates to attend the play, have
dinner, and enjoy New York City. I was riveted by the powerful play,
a series of vignettes performed by a talented ensemble, who combined
laughter, irony, pathos, and more to present a slice of Black life.
Two things stayed with me after all these years. One is a scene where
a woman is on a ledge or balcony, and people are urging her not to
jump. Her reply, “I ain’t leaping; I’m just
leanin’. This is the coolest place in town.” The play
closed with something of a curse on white America. “Put a curse
on you. May all your kids be junkies, too.” And now, thanks to
opioids, many of them are.
lost a giant when we lost Van Peebles on September 21, a giant and a
multitalented man who acted, directed, wrote, starred, produced,
composed, and played music and more. He was a man who loved Black
people and was determined to present us thru Black eyes, not white
ones. He also had an unusual sense of humor and was so deliberately
provocative in his film Sweet
Sweetback’s Badass Song
that the New
York Times described the
movie as “an outrage.” But I remember seeing the film,
rooting for Sweet Sweetback, on the run after he killed white police
officers who were beating a Black man and standing, like the other
audience members did, to applaud when the film was over.
credit Van Peebles with the Blaxploitation genre, but he was so much
more than that. Sweetback, to me, was about portraying a different
power dynamic than one we were used to in 1971. In Sweetback, you saw
a community sticking together, cheering their anti-hero who used
everything he had, including his body and his sexual prowess, to
elude the oppressor. In 1971, few Black folks were willing or able to
give so-called law enforcement officers any pushback, especially
on-screen (the Black Panther Party had been pushing back since its
inception). Sweetback was, if nothing else, a paradigm shift.
Sweetback, we saw docile, humble, polite Black men, like Sidney
Poitier in Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner, or
Lilies of the Field.
We saw exotic Black men like Harry Belafonte. And if we go back to
Paul Robeson, we saw masterful, but nonthreatening, Black men. We
never saw a man quite like Sweet Sweetback.
to Van Peebles, though, we began to see a series of them. None quite
bold enough to kill a police officer, go on the run, and win, but
self-assured enough to portray their truth. So there was John (bad
mother shut your mouth) Shaft, there was Sam Jackson in Quentin
Fiction and Django
Washington in Training Day. So many more. While all of these roles
are complicated, and some overflow with stereotypes, they allowed the
world to look at us differently as a people.
be sure, there is way too much sexism in Black media. Much as I loved
Sweet Sweetback, I cringed at his cavalier use of women and his
disdain for us. Too frequently, that’s the case with male
directors/producers, even Black ones. Even as we tackle issues of
anti-Blackness, we must also confront the sexism that we see in the
Black community, especially in Black film. And we must appreciate the
director Ava DuVernay for the well-rounded and positive Black men in
While these men are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,
they are family and values-driven men, role models.
Peebles was a role model, too. The multitalented man spent time as an
options trader and wrote a book about personal finance. He was a
cable car operator in San Francisco and wrote about those experiences
in a novel. He was prolific both in English and in French and
published several books in France. Van Peebles made full use of his
creative gift, and we are all so much better because he did.
Melvin Van Peebles left his
footprint on Black cinema. He will be mourned and missed, and his
legacy lives on!