Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Three films of Melvin Van Peebles

 Watched "Watermelon Man" (1970) a very good satire on American race relations.  From special features learned Melvin Van Peebles, the director spoke French.  He had come to France not knowing the language, but gradually worked his way to writing for French magazine.  From there he learned if a French writer could get a temporary directing permit after failing to get a directing job in the United States.

From there I learned about a film,  "How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)" (2005) with more details of Melvin's film history.  The title came from a remark that Melvin liked eating watermelon, even though it was stereotypical which he thought was no reason to deny any enjoyment.  Born in Chicago, after military service worked as a portrait painter in Mexico and then he spent time in the Netherlands studying astronomy.  The he moved to France learning the language, got experience and moved on to writing novels.  

In the course of his life he also became a Wall St. trader who wrote an investment boo a singer/song writer and a Broadway director who had been nominated for a Tony award.  

His first feature film was "The Story of a 3 Day Pass" (1967) based on his novel.  It is mostly in French.   A simple story of an American soldier, Turner played by Harry Baird gets a 3 day pass.  The protagonist meets a friendly French woman, Miriam who speaks fair English.   At one point he hears subtle racist words meant to diminish him  and starts a fight.   Flashes of Africans shown to demonstrate stereotypical views and fantasies of some Europeans.  Some familiar American soldiers encounter the couple at beach (Normandy) and told their captain.  The captain who had said kind words to justify the 3 day pass, feels betrayed and takes away a promised promotion and confines  to barracks.  By a "fluke a group of Negro women singing spirituals shows up by bus.  Turner as "one of their own" is asked to give them a tour.   He was a big hit with the group and the leader wants to "fix it" (his detention in barracks).   He got relief, but when he tried to phone Miriam was told she was off sick.   The film ends with him flopping in his bed disappointed and thinking it was an excuse.  Harry Baird was born in British Guiana and did a lot of films in Britain and then traveled to Italy and France for more film work.

 He was given a chance to direct a movie and after reading the script made some changes.  It was supposed to be about a white man suddenly being changed to a black man.  Melvin wanted a black man to start off using whiteface and at the end changed original script of turning back to white to staying black.  Godfrey Cambridge was a good choice playing an insurance salesman who had misled and taken advantage of blacks, but as a black man advised them to abandon policies. although "it's not personal."  He was treated differently by his co workers and his neighbors paid to have him move to protect their house values.  One co worker felt he was sexier as a black man, but after a bed room scene eventually rejected her realizing that she didn't value him as a person.   He had a very small uncredited role.  Melvin won an award for his music for Watermelon Man (noted Paul Williams had a small role).

Melvin's best known film was "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."  He produced, wrote, directed and acted in it.  At first to the censor board X rated it and he protested with a tag line and a T shirt, "Rated Xby an all white jury."  It went on to successful distribution and is said to have ushered in films that were considered 'blakploitation."  Originally Melvin identified that there was a market for movies reflecting black culture and music.  Not everyone considered it a healthy trend, but black culture was now available for the general public and generating profits.

This project got started because it seemed strange that a black American would speak French and then get his start in French film.  In fact it was common for American artists to get a start in France. The world benefits by its global connections.

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