Melvin Van Peebles, widely heralded as the godfather of Black cinema, has died. He was 89. His death was announced by the Criterion Collection and Janus Films. “In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th-anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
Van Peebles wrote, directed, acted in, and composed for such films as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, and Watermelon Man. Van Peebles modeled an independent-filmmaking ethos that saw creators taking control of every facet of production. He wrote, directed, starred in, edited, scored, and produced Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he finished production on the film in 19 days. His score for the film was widely praised and paved the way for Isaac Hayes’s groundbreaking Oscar win for “Theme from Shaft.” Beyond his work in film, Van Peebles wrote plays like Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which is set to return to Broadway in 2022.
“Dad knew that Black images matter, ” Van Peebles son and frequent collaborator Mario Van Peebles said in the statement released by Criterion. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty, and interconnectivity of all people.”