Most of those familiar with Melvin Van Peebles know him as the driving force behind the incendiary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
. While that revolutionary picture earned Van Peebles the title “godfather of modern black cinema,” the film’s impact extends far beyond blaxploitation genre conventions—Sweetback has proven to be a landmark in both American and independent cinema. Much like the film’s iconoclastic hero (played by Van Peebles himself), a street-smart hustler who single-handedly topples the white Establishment (a.k.a. the Man!), Van Peebles functioned as a virtual one-man studio to make Sweetback. Besides starring in the title role, Van Peebles financed, produced, wrote, directed and scored the picture, which grossed more than $10 million, making it the most successful independent film of its time.
What few realize, however, is that filmmaking is but a small part of Van Peebles’ remarkable life. The same dogged, DIY persistence that enabled Van Peebles to make Sweetback
is evident in every project he undertakes, artistic or otherwise, and his achievements have in turn inspired legions of like-minded creators, from rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron to filmmaker Spike Lee. Naturally, by insisting on doing things his way, Van Peebles has stepped on some toes, yet he consistently refuses to back down.
“My politics is to win,” Van Peebles declares at the beginning of How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)
, a documentary that explores the life and work of this maverick, modern-day Renaissance man. Whether making guerrilla-style films, flying Air Force sorties over the Pacific (ferrying the atom bomb, no less), studying astronomy in Amsterdam, writing novels in self-taught French, composing music (by means of a self-devised notation system), writing musical stage plays (for which he received nine Tony nominations), recording seminal rap albums or trading options on Wall Street, Van Peebles has blazed his own path, making a mark in each endeavor he’s pursued.
In How to Eat Your Watermelon…
the events of Van Peebles’ life are vividly recounted through interviews with colleagues, contemporaries, critics, family and friends. The film also takes advantage of remarkable archival footage culled from all corners of Van Peebles’ diverse life—ranging from rare interviews on French TV to a hilarious series of opinion pieces culled from his brief foray as a financial-news analyst—to paint a sharp portrait of this unique personality. But How to Eat Your Watermelon…
doesn’t merely enumerate Melvin Van Peebles’ artistic glories, nor does it plot a static hagiography of accomplishments; by virtue of original cinema vérité footage shot over the past eight years in the U.S. and France, it constructs a gripping narrative of a restless artist in an often unforgiving world, and reveals that Van Peebles, at age 74, is still a vital creative force who shows no signs of slowing down. How to Eat Your Watermelon…
is structured as a conversation, in which an improbably varied cast of characters weaves together a story that constantly builds in intensity and surprise. It’s as if they can’t all be talking about the same person, yet in the absence of a narrator, the audience is repeatedly left to wonder how such dramatic plot turns in the story of one man can be possible. First he’s a grip man on a San Francisco cable car, next he’s writing a book about working on a cable car; then he’s an astronomer in Amsterdam before teaching himself French and publishing five French novels; before long he’s the director of the official French entry in an American film festival—and eventually authoring a book on how to trade stock options on Wall Street. All of these disparate moments coalesce into a story that is nothing short of astonishing. The film comes together gradually as it introduces the “connective tissue” of each episode in Van Peebles’ life: His comfort with the unknown; his ability to create his own working system out of complexities ranging from musical notation to financial analysis; his boundless determination to say something important no matter what the vehicle of expression; his artistic “jujitsu,” by which he confronts the Establishment by using its power against itself.
As the story unfolds, a visual mystery is played out as well. At the film’s beginning, we see an unidentified man, his head encased in a massive blue bubble of polyurethane. As the events of Van Peebles’s career unfold, the film periodically returns to two sculptors who are creating a lifelike figure of Melvin for part of an art exhibition paying tribute to blaxploitation cinema. The creation of the sculpture functions as the film’s narrative spine—a vivid metaphorical transitional device linking the distinct chapters in Van Peebles’s life and career.
One of the central themes of How to Eat Your Watermelon…
is that determination (coupled with talent) trumps adversity every time. As an African-American artist, Van Peebles puts forth a powerful notion about how the battle for true racial equality should unfold, were it to be honest and sincere. In his song “Just Don’t Make No Sense,” Van Peebles takes aim at the presumptions black men in America must face every day: “Frown, you hostile / Smile, you a Tom / Look tired, you on junk / Stumble, you drunk.” Van Peebles typically uses humor to convey his themes, as when he tells the story of how he would spray his office with a watermelon-scented fragrance just before the arrival of “liberal” friends: “They would walk into the office and say, ‘Gee, Mel, what’s that smell? It smells like umm…umm…cantaloupe!’ They were too afraid to say watermelon!”
Humorous, serious and incisive, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)
is ultimately a story about the power of fearlessness.