Melvin Van Peebles and the Black Panthers

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Melvin Van Peebles 1965

In 1971, Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton went to see Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in Oakland, shortly after the film’s release. What he saw that day would have a profound effect not only on Newton himself, but also on Van Peebles, the film and the Party. Newton devoted an entire issue of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper to Van Peebles’s film—the first time the paper was ever given over to one subject in its entirely—the centerpiece of which was his long essay that analyzed the film from a revolutionary perspective. Newton soon made the film required viewing for every Panther member in every chapter across the country.

Billy “X” Jennings was a young Panther and Huey’s assistant at the time; today, he runs the Black Panther Party’s official website itsabouttimebpp.com. In an interview filmed for How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), Jennings recalled the impact of Sweetback on the Party, and on Huey in particular. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation, conducted on May 14, 2004, with the film’s director, Joe Angio, and producer, Michael Solomon.


Q. What it was like the first time you saw Sweetback?
A. The first time I saw it was during 1971. Huey Newton had seen it and was enthusiastic. Huey told all the comrades about it and developed a policy in our organization that everybody would go to see it—150 to 200 Party leaders went to see it over a three-day period. The Fox Theater in Oakland let Party members in, 30 to 40 at a time, for free. The first time I saw it, it grabbed me.


Q. But try to describe—in as much detail as you can remember—what that experience was like: how you got there, what the reaction was like inside the theater, and if you discussed it afterward, what did you say when you talked about it.
A. Well, if I can look back on 1971, it was the 7 o’clock showing at the Fox Theater—Huey told everyone who didn’t have any definite work to show up at the movie. There was a special side door where they were letting us in, for free. When we arrived, there were comrades coming out who had just seen it, and they were slapping each other five, saying, “It’s going to be a bad movie; they’ve got some good shit in there.”

In the black community, it’s typical that people talk to the screen in the theater. When the movie starts out Sweet Sweetback is a young cat, right? And this was the first time you’ve ever seen sex on screen, and there were some people saying, “The young guy getting some!” Actually talking to the movie. And when Sweet Sweetback had to defend himself and help the revolutionary brother out, and deal with those two police, you could hear people shout, “Right on! That’s the way he should deal with it. He’s doing the right thing.” And Van Peebles’s—Sweet Sweetback’s—boss in the movie was Beetle. And this guy was, like a very unconscious person, and one time he was selling selling Sweetback out, and people were booing, stuff like that.

And there are sad parts in the movie, like at the very end, you don’t know if Sweet Sweetback is dead or not when they sic the dogs on him, so just when he’s about to obtain his freedom, there’s silence, because of what is happening. When you put dogs on black people, black people react in a very hostile manner because of what’s been happening historically to black people. So when they put the dogs out to get Sweet Sweetback, everybody was angry, cussing at the screen, because everybody thought it was going to be the end for Sweetback. But when we saw the dogs all laid out—Sweetback had escaped and killed the dogs—you heard a big release when you see Sweetback running at the end of the movie. It was fantastic; it was like a warm feeling, like when somebody recognizes you in a crowd or something. It’s like, Yeah, this one’s finally got it right.


Q. And what about Huey; what was his reaction when he first saw Sweetback?
A. At the time, Huey was going to court. So I would help him get his things together for court in the day, then in the evening I worked at the Lamp Post, a restaurant we [the Party] owned. After court was over, Huey would come in for dinner. He had just seen the movie, and when he’s very excited about something he gets a big smile and he talks fast—you could see from his hand gestures that he was excited and talking about the movie: “Finally there was a movie out that had some consciousness in it, and had all the elements for a possible revolutionary movie.” He was also excited about the fact that there was a brother in the movie, a guy who made the movie, who directed it, and starred in it too. He thought that was a beautiful thing.

Huey was going on about how the police was dealt with in the movie and how the community rallied around Sweet Sweetback and this brother named Momo, who was a revolutionary—he was a person in the community who was making changes; he wanted a different type of system. So we looked at that as being part of us. Sweetback is uniting with the revolutionary because the enemy is the same. And that’s what really caught Huey’s idea because of all this heavy symbolism in the movie. For instance, Sweet Sweetback only says three or four things in the movie—in the Party we always say actions speak louder than words. And Van Peebles let Sweet Sweetback do that. There’s a part where there’s background singing—“Feet don’t fail me now”—and that’s a part we really relate to because Sweet Sweetback uses no technology to escape, to harm anybody. When he fights in a pool hall with the police, he uses a pool cue as a spear, then he uses handcuffs as a knife. What it also shows is that, throughout the movie, as Sweet Sweetback moves through community, he had aid; he had support from people in the community who thought he was discriminated against, and that what he did was good because those cops were known as being very brutal. So he started getting community support—even from women who were prostitutes, church members, stuff like that. It was like a circle that showed if people perceive you’re doing something positive for the community, people will rally around you and help you. Even the gangsters would help him up to a point.


Q. What was the impact on the Party and its members?
A. The impact was good because I really liked the fact that the good guys win at the end. I mean, here was a guy who was working really hard and he was a victim. Sweet Sweetback was a victim of society, and throughout the whole movie he gradually gains consciousness about who he is and what his position is in the world. When I see him deal with the police in that manner—because the police in the movie were very aggressive, very brutal, they had a very nasty relationship with people in the community, and most of the people in the community in that movie were black. When he dealt with them in a physical manner I felt empowerment because it was how we felt at the time we had to progress the struggle. We were coming from an era of nonviolence. And as the movie depicts, a brother stands up for justice because what set Sweetback off was that police was brutalizing a young black brother, and he couldn’t turn his back on it. So he stood up for him, which to me was a very good example of what people could do in our community: to come together to oppose our oppressor.


Q. As far as the kind of movies you were seeing in the theaters at this time, this was a sea change, right?
A. Big time change. In the Party, I was a dedicated member. Going to the theater was not an everyday thing for us. We worked 16-hour days—there was no time to go to the movies! So when something special came along, something we thought would raise people’s consciousness, we would see it. Before Sweetback, I couldn’t remember seeing any progressive movies on the commercial market that I told others to see because it had consciousness-raising values.


Q. What were some of the points that Huey was making about the movie in his analysis?

A. Huey put a revolutionary analysis to this movie because he saw the potential that this movie had. At this time, in 1971, the Party was talking about the lumpenproletariat, the lumpenproletariat being the people who don’t have any jobs, who don’t have any direct investment in society, the low-level, unemployed people. And this was what Sweet Sweetback was; he was one of those guys. He didn’t have a regular job. He worked in a house of ill repute, and he performed for his living. So he was a victim, like we all are. So his level of consciousness grew and grew. And people saw him as somebody who was victimized but he made that step, and became a legend in the community because he got away.

There were messages, like Sweet Sweetback running throughout the movie [Holds up newspaper with photograph of Sweetback running]. When I see this particular photo, it reminds me of someone like Nat Turner, or someone from the slavery days, running for his freedom. So when he talks about “Feet don’t fail me now,” that’s all black people had at the time was their feet and their ability to survive. It has a lot of symbolism, cause it deals with slavery.

The movie also deals with two guys who were coming from different ends of the community. You had a revolutionary and then you had Sweetback, who represents a very unconscious guy; by the end he’s helping the revolutionary elude the police. He helps the revolutionary when he was sick and when he was beat up. Even in the movie, when the motorcycle guy comes and tells Sweetback, “Get on, I’ll take you out of here,” he says, “No, take the other guy, he’s our future.” So being around this revolutionary has changed his ideas about how he views life; who his enemies and who his friends are. So it was good symbolism in that manner.

And there were other things, like the women in the movie. If you didn’t read Huey’s article, you might interpret that he was exploiting the women, but in the movie the women saved him time and time again. They gave him knowledge, they gave him love, they helped him escape, they put money in his pocket. And even the older sisters in the movie, when the police came around, they said they’d never seen Sweetback, even though they had just seen him moments before. So he had cooperation from various levels of the community. Because he was being victimized and people realized he was being victimized, but Sweet Sweetback took the ultimate step, he did something about his oppressors. And he eventually got away at the very end with the help of the community.

It was the embodiment of what the Party was about. Finally, we’d seen someone capture our thoughts, our gestures, our ideologies. You know, here’s an unconscious guy who becomes conscious. Where people in the community who had no unity before are rallying around Sweet Sweetback because he did some stuff that made a difference. And that’s what we thought we were doing; we were those revolutionaries who were making a difference. So when we seen that projected on the screen, all it did was help to empower us even more.


Q. You told me earlier that, for a while, this was all that Huey would talk about, right?
A. Oh, yeah, he would talk about it on a regular basis. I think Huey himself had gone to see it like three or four times. He was always taking different people. He thought, This might be the trend that we’re looking for—that this might be the vehicle to get other people to start making movies more related to the true conditions of the community, instead of stuff like the ones that came afterward that dealt with drug dealers, gangsters, and all the negative aspects of the community.


Q. You’ve talked about the impact that the movie had on the party, but what about Huey’s analysis—what impact did that have on the party?
A. In the Party, we believed in taking a phenomenon and trying to make it act out in a desired manner. This film had the potential to educate the people about the ills of our community, and how to solve some of the basic problems in our community. Not only here in the Bay Area, but throughout the Black Panther Party all across America. At that time we had about 40 chapters throughout America, and every member of the Party was supposed to go see this movie. The paper was a big seller for the Party. When the paper was sold on the streets, we sold a lot of issues because when people learned that Huey had made an analysis of the movie, they wanted to find out what he saw in the movie that they didn’t see, its potential, and stuff like that.

I don’t think the movie would have been as well received without Huey’s analysis. They went hand in hand. In the movie, you had people making backwards statements, like, “You can’t fight the system. You can’t fight City Hall.” Well, we knew you can fight City Hall, and you can win. So you can overcome different obstacles and this movie shows you that you can do that.

So Huey helped the movie out tremendously cause he gave another face to the movie—I don’t think Van Peebles knew entirely how powerful the movie was until Huey put his analysis to it. Some movie-goers might have seen it only as a sexual, violent movie. If you interpret it as a sexual, male-chauvinistic movie, Huey was providing an alternative, bringing out other points Van Peebles was making in the movie: self-defense, unity, coming together to help each other. Even if you don’t like each other, we have the same oppressor; we have to unify to do something to help the deplorable conditions in the community. Those are very strong points. The point that the women in the movie might be looked at as sexual objects, but when you look at it from Huey’s revolutionary perspective, they gave Sweetback knowledge, information, they helped him escape. So it wasn’t the fact that women were being exploited in this movie, you just had to look at it with the revolutionary eye as opposed to looking at it straight up.


Q. How long afterward did the paper come out?

A. I think it was the next week. I think the week after Huey saw the movie, the next week Huey did the analysis in the newspaper. That following week after he went to see the movie…we had political-education classes every Sunday, and it was at that Sunday’s political-education class that the only thing that we dealt with was this article right here [Points to newspaper]. We had 250 members of the Black Panther Party all sitting around reading this together, as a group. So, the paper was sold, we learned from the paper and we put the ideas out in the community.


Q. In those meetings did some of the conflicts of the movie come out? You know, “I think Sweetback…”
A. Oh, yeah. We had different people with different terminology—some sisters didn’t think there was any value to the movie at all. If you went to see the movie, you might’ve been caught up in the scenes instead of the overall themes of the movie, you know? Even though Sweetback didn’t talk all that much in the movie, you might say, “Hey, that guy didn’t say shit in the movie.” He didn’t have to say anything because his actions speak louder than words.


Q. Let’s go back to the movie’s sexual aspects. That was one of the main criticisms of the movie; you’ve even alluded to the fact that people in the Party were divided on this issue.
A. Yeah, even in the Party, some people thought it was a glorified sex movie, about a male chauvinist who had sex throughout the movie. But Huey had also made an analysis about Dylan, about freaks—I think it’s called “Ballad of a Thin Man.” And he talks about how people have to survive, how people who go to see the freak show, the sideshow, to see these freaks. But they in turn are the real freaks because they—the freaks—are doing this out of survival. And the people who are coming to do this are doing it for their pleasure, out of their own decision. Sweet Sweetback, his whole thing was having this sexual thing, right? That was his art. He did that because he was a victim; he didn’t have a job to go to. So he was being victimized in that way. So the interpretation of Van Peebles came from a guy who was unconscious going to conscious.


Q. We all know now how Melvin capitalized on the movie’s X rating by making the slogan “Rated X by an all-white jury.” Is that something the Party reacted to as well?
A. “Rated X by an all-white jury” was a good slogan. The movie was rated X but Melvin Van Peebles put the twist to it and got a little mileage out of that. But even the slogan falls in accordance with point eight of our ten-point program: one of the things we specify that we want and that we believe was that black people need to be tried by a jury of our peers. And the motion-picture industry is not a peer group. By them putting an X on it, he had to take the movie to the people. People could understand that because, this was 1971, and in 1964 President Johnson had signed a voting-rights bill that made it possible for everyone in America to vote. But that’s not true because [black] people weren’t even registered to vote. But people could understand the “all-white jury” thing because that was, you know, who rules America. So that slogan came across very good in the community.


Q. What was going on with the state of the Party at the time when the movie came out?
A. Prior to the movie coming out in 1971, our organization went through a tremendous blow. We’d had a split within our organization; certain members in certain chapters of the Black Panther Party had left the organization because they viewed the direction that the Party was going was not revolutionary enough. So this happened a few months before the movie was released. But also at the same time, there was a lot of conscience-raising, as far as society as a whole, but also in the music industry. In 1971, one of the biggest hits was “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye. “Mercy Mercy Me.” He talked about the conditions in the community; he talked about people going to fight in Vietnam, people not having jobs. So on the heels of that to have a movie talking about the deplorable conditions in the community, to give symbolism to how this silent black man who was nobody rose to become a representative member of the community. So the movie came at a very good time, when the consciousness was rising. Because you had people like James Brown talking about “I’m black and I’m proud;” black businesses coming out with black and brown stamps. Plus, to have a major black movie by a black director; he acted in it and he wrote it, that was a tremendous thing cause I don’t think anyone had did that in the modern era before Van Peebles. So 1971 was a strong year for the Party, even though we had the split. The organization became more directed toward our community-service programs, because the people who left the organization were people who were pro-military, who emphasized revolution over community work. Our thing was to educate the community so the people could make the decision whether they want to have revolution or not. Our thing was to be servants of the people; provide services to help people, like the breakfast program, the sickle-cell anemia program, the free-food program, to aid the people in the community. That’s where the Party was going at the time the movie came out. Plus, it came out in cluster of other movies, Shaft, etc., these movies came out in the wake of Sweetback, but none had the revolutionary potential of Sweetback.


Q. Going back to the music of that era, what a lot of people don’t know about the Sweetback soundtrack is that it’s the first recorded appearance of Earth, Wind & Fire. They were the band on that.
A. Hmm. Now that’s a piece of information I didn’t know. Van Peebles I know did a lot of those lyrics himself, like he says, “You bled my mother…” And actually, that became a big issue in the Party because we used that a number of times, on the back [Holds up BPP newspaper] it says: “You bled my mama, you bled my papa, but you won’t bleed me” because I’m gonna stand up to you, I’m gonna organize, I’m gonna do something about the problem. So all that had a direct relation to the Party, because the Party was pushing the image to the lumpenproletariat. And that’s who Van Peebles was through the character Sweet Sweetback: he was an unemployed, broke guy in the community; he was a nobody as far as the system goes, but he became an icon in the community because people was trying to help him, you know.


Q. Were there any other movies, books, music, etc., that the Party embraced to the degree they did with Sweetback?
A. Well, like I said, at that particular time, the Party was developing a community liaison. Before the Party was viewed as a strictly militant group. So we were re-establishing ourselves in the community. At various times, the Party would have us go see things, like Trouble Man, when it was released, we went to see that en masse. But as far as popular music at the time, there were some groups, like Curtis Mayfield, the Impressions. They performed for us when Curtis Mayfield was in the group in 1968 at Huey’s birthday rally while Huey was sill in jail. Then later on there was a group from back east called The Persuasions, they were an a cappella group. As well as Aretha Franklin—when Aretha came to town she had dinner with Huey. There were different people who came through Oakland, like John Lee Hooker. Now John Lee Hooker was from Oakland, so on different occasions he did free concerts for us. So did Santana. Before Santana released his Evil Ways album, he had done a free show for our breakfast program. Same with Tower of Power. Lenny Williams has always been close to the Party. Lenny Williams’ cousin plays drums for The Lumpen, who is a band the Black Panther Party put together. The connection with progressive musicians in the Bay Area has been longstanding. We always had people doing benefits for us: the Jefferson Airplane, you know, before they became the Starship. The Grateful Dead opened up three or four shows for The Lumpen, before they did “Truckin’.” So the Party’s been connected with different groups from pop culture. Like James Baldwin, different writers like that. Richard Wright. In fact, Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, his daughter ran our parish chapter of the Black Panther Party.


Q. Let’s go back to Melvin and Huey. You mentioned that there was a three-, four-month period when they hung around quite a bit. Did Huey ever talk about those times?
A. Not really. I never heard anything much—they were in New York, they were over here, doing this or that. At one point Van Peebles and Huey were going to do a movie together, something revolutionary or some such, but nothing ever materialized from it. Huey was a drawing card for many, and actually, he was a very celebrity-oriented revolutionary. The impact of Huey and the Black Panther Party could be felt throughout the world. We had Black Panther Party members being requested to travel to Japan, to Paris and France, different locations like that, to speak. One Party member went to speak in Germany and was surprised to see “Free Huey” written on the Berlin Wall! Now that’s a great impact for a guy who’s never been out of Oakland, to go to a foreign country, and to see that what they’re doing has an impact on other places. So the impact of the Party was felt throughout…even Mandela talks about the Party being a strong, positive image, something that kept him going all those years when he was in prison in South Africa. Stephen Biko started a Black Panther Party. There were Black Panther Parties being started all over. The Grey Panther Party, who were senior citizens; the Polynesian Panther Party, they have a Panther Party in India, you know, the lower-class people there, they call them the untouchables. They have a caste system in India, so they have a Panther Party in India that represents the lower-class people because the word Panther stands for freedom fighter, someone who stands up for their rights. So, in that way, by Van Peebles being connected to the Party it only made his understanding of the people, his legacy, even bigger.

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