(NR) 4 starsEd Johnson-Ott
Last week, Baadasssss opened at AMC Castleton Arts and about three of you showed up, forcing them to drop the film. Luckily, the fine folks at Key Cinemas are picking it up, which gives you another chance to see one of the best movies to come out so far this year. In Baadasssss, actor/writer/filmmaker Mario Van Peebles takes you back to one of the wildest points of the '60s for an extremely entertaining film that looks at the relationship between a father and son, the obsession of an artist, the Black Power groundswell and the early days of the independent film movement.
The movie is fun, harrowing, outrageous and insightful. What more do you require?
In 1971, Mario's father, Melvin Van Peebles, released Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song, a low, low, low budget flick about a big black stud (ahem, played by Melvin Van Peebles) who attacks a pair of white racist cops and goes on the run. In those days, this was unheard of. Blacks were placed on screen only with the greatest of caution. And what about that title? In those days, most newspapers would never print such a title (come to think of it, I imagine that a number of papers would still reject it).
Later, when theaters were packed with movies like Shaft, Variety dubbed sexy action films starring people of color as "blaxploitation." Debate that on your own. Just understand that when Melvin decided to do this, he was the first.
In Baadasssss, Mario Van Peebles shows how it happened, playing his own papa in the process. And believe me, Melvin is not sanitized for your protection by Mario. We see an artist focused on his work to the point of obsession, neglecting his family as he keeps moving aside any barrier between him and the completion of the film.
Along the way, Mario gives one of the best performances of his career. Other strong cast members include Joy Bryant as Priscilla, T.K. Carter as Bill Cosby, Terry Crews as Big T, Ossie Davis as Granddad, David Alan Grier as Clyde, Nia Long as Sandra, Paul Rodriguez as Jose Garcia, Saul Rubinek as Howie Kaufman and Vincent Schiavelli as Jerry.
They offer a wide range of emotional tones, but the unquestionably weirdest moment comes when Melvin (played by Mario) insists on casting his 13-year-old son Mario (well-played by Khleo Thomas) in a flashback scene to when Sweet Sweetback lost his virginity to a prostitute. Watching that scene ... seeing adult Mario, dressed as his father, making him do this in front of a camera crew. Looking at the expression Mario the adult told the boy playing him to adopt. Weird. Too weird.
Most of the film is more funny-weird or outrageous-weird than creepy-weird, though. If you have ever marveled at the movie-making process, then watch this and see the process at its most raw and real.
Baadasssss works on a number of levels. Find out how it works for you. Key Cinemas has given you a second chance. Use it.