Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker, writer, and musician who was heralded as the Godfather of Black Cinema, has died at the age of 89, according to the The Hollywood Reporter and Variety . As THR points out, Van Peebles died on Tuesday night (September 21), surrounded by family at his home. No cause of death has been given. On social media: The Criterion Collection posted a statement s announcing the news. “We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles,” Criterion tweeted. “In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.” (Main image getty)
He worked as a cable car gripman in San Francisco. Later, he wrote about these experiences. His first book, The Big Heart, credited to Melvin Van, evolved from a small article and a series of photographs taken by Ruth Bernhard.
According to Van Peebles, a passenger suggested that he should become a filmmaker. Van Peebles shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick in 1957, and made two more short films during the same period. About these films, Van Peebles says: “I thought they were features. Each one turned out to be eleven minutes long. I was trying to do features. I knew nothing.” As he learned more about the filmmaking process, he found out that “I could make a feature for five hundred dollars. That was the cost of 90 minutes of film. I didn’t know a thing about shooting a film sixteen to one or ten to one or none of that shit. Then I forgot you had to develop film. And I didn’t know you needed a work print. All I can say is that after I did one thing he would say, ‘Well, aren’t you gonna put sound on it?’ and I would go, ‘Oh shit!’ That’s all I could say.”
After Van Peebles completed his first short films, he took them with him to Hollywood to try to find work, but was unable to find anyone who wanted to hire him as a director. Van Peebles decided to move his family to the Netherlands where he planned to study astronomy. On the way to Europe, in New York City, he met Amos Vogel, founder of the avant-garde Cinema 16 who agreed to place two of Van Peebles’s shorts in his rental catalog. Vogel screened Van Peebles’s Three Pickup Men for Herrick at Cinema 16 on a program with City of Jazz in the spring of 1960 with Ralph Ellison leading a post-film discussion.
When Vogel went to Paris shortly after, he brought Van Peebles’s films to show Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson at the Cinémathèque Française. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Van Peebles’s marriage dissolved and his wife and children went back to America. Shortly after, Van Peebles was invited to Paris probably by Mary Meerson and/or Lotte Eisner, founders of the Cinémathèque Française, on the strength of his short films. In France, Van Peebles created a short film Les Cinq Cent Balles (500 Francs) (1961) and then established himself as a French writer. He did investigative reporting for France Observateur during 1963-64 during which he profiled, and later became friends with, Chester Himes. Chester Himes got him a job at the anti-authoritarian humor magazine Hara-kiri where Van Peebles wrote a monthly column and eventually joined the editorial board.
Van Peebles is perhaps best known for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in which he plays the titular character—a wrongfully accused ladies man on the run from racist cops. The film, as with many of Van Peebles works, was highly influential, and is considered a gem of the Blaxploitation genre. His body of work, including movies like The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man, and Don’t Play Us Cheap, went on to influence directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Quentin Tarantino.
In addition to his own films, Van Peebles worked as an actor frequently throughout his career, appearing in Robert Atman’s O.C. and Stiggs, Jaws: The Revenge, Last Action Hero, and more. He pursued many creative endeavors, such as painting and writing plays, but Van Peebles was also deeply enmeshed with the music community. He composed the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was recorded by legendary group Earth, Wind & Fire. He also wrote and sang on the score for his previous film Watermelon Man, which featured slide guitar courtesy of Ry Cooder.
Van Peebles released a string of solo albums throughout the decades, and collaborated with a number of contemporary artists. In 2014, Van Peebles released The Last Transmission, a sprawling spoken word and jazz record with the Heliocentrics. Just last year, the filmmaker appeared in the visual for Standing on the Corner’s single “Angel.”
Melvin Van Peebles married Maria Marx. They lived in Mexico for a period in the late 1950s, where he painted portraits. Their son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles, was born while they resided in Mexico. The family subsequently returned to the United States.
Van Peebles died on September 21, 2021, at his home in Manhattan at age 89.