If “Plan Nine from Outer Space” deserved the sort of reverential treatment that Tim Burton gave it (and its hapless maker’s other awful movies) in the wondrous “Ed Wood,” certainly there can be no objection to Mario Van Peebles affording recognition to his father’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asss Song,” the gritty, grim 1971 blaxpoitation flick that Melvin made, guerilla-style, in defiance of the studio bosses’ insistence that its heroic portrayal of a black superstud who escapes after killing a couple of racist cops wouldn’t sell. In Mario’s “Baadassssss!” it’s Melvin who earns the earns the titular appellation by not only bucking the system (among other things using a multi-ethnic, non-union crew when the unions were lily-white) and sending a cinematic message that tapped into the revolutionary attitude that had emerged in African-American culture at the time, but doing whatever was necessary to realize his vision–enlisting investors who didn’t always have the most savory backgrounds, shooting on the fly without any legal permission, even forcing his own young son to play some acutely embarrassing scenes.
What’s remarkable about the finished product isn’t that it finally recognizes an unrecognized masterpiece–to the contrary, “Baad Assss Song” is a pretty terrible movie by any objective standard–but that the portrait it draws of Melvin is a warts-and-all one. On the one hand, the picture celebrates his accomplishment in putting everything on the line to do things his way, refusing to follow the dictates of an industry that seemed intent on keeping blacks (and other minorities) in their place, both on the screen and behind the camera. On the other, it doesn’t shrink from depicting his less-than-admirable personal qualities, most notably the single-mindedness that led him to treat his own son in a less than completely protective way. The fact that Mario himself plays Melvin, as well as producing, directing and co-writing the picture, turns the enterprise into something really interesting–a sort of cinematic working out of a son’s ambiguous attitude toward his father, a psychological exercise as well as an artistic one.
In the latter sphere, unfortunately, the new film is a mixed bag. It has a good deal of energy and a splashy visual style, but its mixture of dramatic recreation, interviews and social commentary succeeds only sporadically, and it tends to be drawn in the broadest possible strokes. (Though the budget is obviously much larger than the minuscule one Melvin had on hand for “Baad Assss Song,” the picture cultivates a gritty, seat-of-the-pants look in emulation of the earlier one.) The performances are distinctly variable. Van Peebles is vigorous as Melvin, and young Khleo Thomas is affecting as the teen Mario. There are also nice supporting turns from Paul Rodriguez as a cameraman, David Alan Grier as a porno producer, Saul Rubinek as Van Peebles’ anxious agent, and Vincent Schiavelli as a cautious movie distributor. In just a few scenes Ossie Davis brings his dignified presence to Martin’s father. The rest of the cast, however, range from adequate to amateurish, with T.K. Carter an especially unconvincing Bill Cosby (the comedian’s last minute investment in the movie saved the project).
“Baadasssss!” is a lot of things–a son’s nod of recognition to his father, a way for him to exorcize whatever demons remain from his childhood, an attempt to capture what was arguably a defining moment in the African-American experience and, most importantly, a pretty good yarn. If it goes to extremes in elevating “Baad Assss Song” to classic status and glorifying its influence (the final shot is of the actual Melvin, bathed in glowing light as his eyes peer into the audience), that’s a son’s prerogative. And at least it’s not hagiography.