by Margaux Williamson
(I had rented Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Twilight #2 at the video store. My friend Carl Wilson called just as Twilight #2 ended to see if I wanted to watch a movie. So Carl and I watched Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Neither of us had seen it before. We asked each other a lot of questions about the plot throughout the movie. If you get the DVD, don’t miss “The Making of…” documentary. Melvin Van Peebles is a pretty easy man to listen to. )
A young black orphan is taken in by a lot of black women in an arty brothel… or a sexy art performance space. The young orphan quickly becomes a man and is then named Sweetback – I think because he is such a good lover. Sweetback doesn’t talk much… or at all. He is a good performer and is also very passive. The arty space looks oddly familiar to me – as though this movie wasn’t made that long ago or made from that far away.
Some white cops enter and watch the end of a performance that Sweetback is part of – they watch from a distance. They are digging it – everyone is. The show is about a dyke’s dream of becoming a man. Two women, one in drag with a beard and a dildo, and one with bride of Frankenstein hair, perform a loving courtship in the middle of the space’s red-carpeted room. The audience, seated on chairs, circles them intimately. A tall man, in a pale blue fairy godmother gown, tells us that even dykes have dreams. With some distraction tricks and lighting effects, the dyke’s dream comes true and the woman in drag becomes Sweetback the man, with a real beard and a real penis. The loving courtship is then consummated.
After the show, the cops ask the boss of the space, Beetle, if Beetle can give them “one of his boys” for them to take downtown. On account of a recent murder, the cops want to bring in some suspects so they look good to their superiors. We’ll bring him right back, they say. In exchange, the cops offer continued good relations and a bit of dope. Beetle considers, then suddenly sees the camera and glares at the camera’s intrusion – or glares at whoever the camera is supposed to be.
Sweetback is so well-liked by everyone that when the cops take him to an abandoned field (with another “suspect” they pick up) Sweetback is freed of his handcuffs by one of the cops. “Oh sorry about that Sweetback” the cops says to Sweetback, noticing eventually that Sweetback is getting jerked around as they hit the man who does not yet “look like a sniper” whom Sweetback is handcuffed to. The cop frees Sweetback and then returns to beating the other man. Sweetback looks out to the distance for a while and, after an incredibly long moment, eventually turns and hits both the cops with his half open handcuffs. Everything is stilled, the movie framing only Sweetback as the only man standing. After another moment, Sweetback returns to beating the cops at his feet. After this, hell breaks loose.
The black community is internally torn by Sweetback’s actions and is also turned upside down while cops look for Sweetback. People are angry at Sweetback for causing all this trouble, but excited, too, that Sweetback is still alive. The longer Sweetback escapes the reach of the cops, the more excited people get. During this time, there is some self-protective love-making that Sweetback engages in with ex-girlfriends, racist bikers and non-communicative hippies.
Also during this time, a lot of conversations take place – between Sweetback and people offering to help Sweetback, between Sweetback and people who are not offering to help Sweetback, conversations between the cops and the press, the cops and the cops, between the religious minister and the people, the religious minister and Sweetback – between the cops and Sweetback’s friends. During most of these conversations, the talkers talk right into the camera, the camera standing in for the “listener” or for Sweetback – since Sweetback is most often the one being talked at. It creates the effect of feeling, as a member of the movie audience, that you are in the position of the person who is being talked at. The movie could have been called “Things People Have Said To Me (Sweetback) and To You!”
The effect works so effortlessly within the traditionally structured narrative that I didn’t even notice it at first. It’s pretty impressive to stretch the rules of a traditional narrative to include the audience in this way without actually breaking the narrative. It is especially impressive when the effect is both subtle and effective, where the silence of the main character most clearly mimics the silence of an audience.
It also works to create empathy for almost all of the characters – for the audience to be put in this position of being yelled at, or turned away, or treated as a villain or an insider or as a friend.
It is not the most obvious choice to make a movie about a revolution where the main revolutionary never speaks, but it sure makes for a sound revolution. “Run Sweetback, Run!” the band Earth, Wind & Fire sing/ scream at Sweetback over and over again from the musical score as Sweetback makes his way out of the city, across the fields and into the desert. If Sweetback saves himself and makes it to Mexico, he might one day return.