For many years African Americans have remained a fragmented presence in mainstream American film. In many cases, black people were either relegated to inferior roles, or not present at all in feature films. D.W. Griffith’s epic film The Birth of a Nation (1915) depicted African Americans as brutal, child-like, comical, senseless, and uncivilized. In his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Donald Bogle describes the magnitude of racist imagery and legacy created in Griffith’s epic film. Bogle states:
The Birth of a Nation, however, not only vividly re-created history, but revealed its director’s philosophical concept of the universe and his personal racial bigotry. For D.W. Griffith there was a moral order at work in the universe. If that order were ever thrown out of whack, he believed chaos would ensue. Griffith’s thesis was sound, relatively exciting, and even classic in a purely Shakespearean sense. But in articulating his thesis, Griffith seemed to be saying that things were in order when whites were in control and when the American Negro was kept in his place. In the end, Griffith’s “lofty” statement – and the film’s subject matter – transformed The Birth of a Nation into a hotly debated and bitterly cursed picture (10).
Although the African American image has drastically improved since The Birth of a Nation in American cinema, the relationship between Hollywood and Black Americans has remained estranged.
Over the years there were many attempts made by several filmmakers in both Hollywood and independent cinema, to counter the array of negative images of African Americans in film. Perhaps one of the most daring, radical moves made came with Melvin Van Peeple’s 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The film was produced independently by Van Peeples who borrowed money from several sources including $50,000 from Bill Cosby. For Van Peeples, Sweetback was to be an answer to Hollywood’s traditional approach to black focused narratives. With the rise of Black Nationalism, changes in the social and political landscape, and the continued frustration with Hollywood’s overall handling of black narratives in America, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song emerged as a controversial yet refreshing cinematic breakthrough for black aesthesis in film.
In this essay I conduct a narrative analysis in relation to the specific political/social/cultural discourses of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Certainly when considering Sweetback it’s important to understand the historical significance of the film. At this point in American history African Americans had grown increasingly frustrated with Hollywood’s insensitive narratives involving blacks. My plan is to focus on the cultural/political/social conditions that are represented within the narrative discourse of the film. Specifically, I will focus on the influence of cultural movements such as the black power movement in the late sixties and seventies as well as the Civil Rights Movement that preceded it. In addition, the paper will explore Sweetback as a “black film” through its depiction of the experience of a black folk hero in the narrative.
Ed Guerrero discusses both the historical and cultural significance of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in his book Framing Blackness stating:
In terms of Hollywood production economics and its narrative strategies for representing blacks, Sweet Sweetback was a maverick breakthrough movie. Melvin Van Peeples, who had just written and directed the moderately successful black-focused comedy, Watermelon Man (1970), financed his new project through various independent sources outside industry channels, including $100,000 of his own money and $50,000 from Bill Cosby. And by pretending to be making a porno flick, Van Peeples was able to vary his crew and further economize by using black and nonunion personnel. Van Peeples wrote and directed the film, scored the music, and played the leading role, all of which reduced total costs for salaries. The end result of his innovative efforts was a feature-length film shot in less than three weeks and costing $500,000. Initially, Sweetback was played cautiously, opening in two theaters to survey black audience reaction, but by the end of the year the film was a nationwide smash hit that had grossed $10 million (86).
The film effectively challenged the industries narrative strategies concerning African Americans. Sweetback’s narrative discourses are directly connected to the social, cultural and political climate in 1970s America.
The film opens in a brothel. There’s a shot of a young boy, Sweetback, eating food while being watched and adored by several women. The scene then cuts to a shot of the adult Sweetback running underneath a city bridge. Text appear across the screen reading “Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality…” – Traditional prologue of the dark ages. The shot freezes and the text then changes to “This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man.”
The narration of this scene is particularly striking and revealing of not only the large plot, but the cultural and political discourse of the film. The opening sequence, for example, depicts a group of African American women feeding a fourteen year old African American boy. The scene uses no dialogue and the camera doesn’t privilege one particular character over another. However, the scene places emphasis on the relationship between the women and the boy. At this point in the narrative it’s unclear that we are in a brothel, but the signs are apparent. The scene is specifically representative of the politics of black sexuality and the importance of a nurturing relationship between the African American matriarchal and patriarchal figures.
As the boy Sweetback ravages the food in front of him, the camera pans from right to left showing the women smile at Sweetback. The women are flamboyantly costumed highlighting a distinct sexual beauty. The emphasis on their sexual prowess can be read as a commentary on the historic misrepresentation of black female sexual identity. Before this in a majority of mainstream cinema, black women were relegated to domestic roles and usually only casts if they were large and dark; an archetypical character described by Donald Bogle as the Mammy figure:
Mammy, the fourth black archetype, is so closely related to the comic coons that she is usually relegated to their ranks. Mammy is distinguished, however, by her sex and her fierce independence. She is usually big, fat, and cantankerous. She made her debut around 1914 when audiences were treated to a blackface version of Lysistrata. The comedy, titled Coon Town Suffragettes, dealt with a group of bossy mammy washerwomen who organize a militant movement to keep their good-for-nothing husbands at home. Aristophanies would no doubt have risen from his grave with righteous indignation. But the militancy of the washerwomen served as a primer for the mammy roles Hattie McDaniel was to perfect in the 1930s (9).
This passage is particularly important when understanding this scene as a completely breakdown of the mythologized Mammy figure and asexual black female domestics. The main woman who feeds the young Sweetback closely resembles, in appearance, the mammy figure. She’s considerably larger than the other women in the shot and appears to be the one in charge as she puts food on the boy’s plate.
However, unlike traditional Hollywood mammy figures, she is kind and maternal towards the young black male; who in this case is the filmic representation of black male sexuality as well as the future patriarchal figure of the black community. The women serving him food sets in motion the main discourse of the narrative which emphasizes the importance of the relationship between black men and women. They nourish him with food undoubtedly strengthening him for the coming struggle against racism. This is evident through cross-cutting from the boy eating to a shot of the adult Sweetback character on the run.
The sequence ends with the young Sweetback coerced by one of the women to enter her room and have sex with her during which she dubs him Sweetback (because he has a “sweet back”). The film, in this instance, is by no means a happy portrait of life. The disturbing and somewhat grotesque sex scene between what one can only assume is a thirteen to fourteen year old boy and a woman, who is obviously thirty or older, is another metaphor offered through the narrative discourse on the black male and female sexual identity. The woman is clearly sexually experienced where the boy is not. The illicit sex scene between to the two not only establishes the protagonist’s Sweetback’s sexual prowess as a means of granting him agency, but also further unites the ideology of a need for sexual unification between black man and woman. The black woman’s sexual experience aids in creating Sweetback’s sexual identity and therefore granting the hero agency to navigate his social space.
The sex scene concludes and the opening credits roll. The credits state texts state that the film stars “The Black Community.” At the end of the credits the scene dissolves taking the spectator from the past into the present in the narrative. The camera continues its focus on the prostitute and the now adult Sweetback’s climaxing sexual encounter. At the forefront of the narrative discourse of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the indeed the “black community.” After the opening credit sequence, the scene cuts to what appears to be the main living space of a new brothel. The focus of the narrative, at this point, is no longer Sweetback, but the action of the brothel. Once more the scene focuses on the black sexuality theme. The sequence depicts an erotic performance in which a woman prances around with flowers before being seduced into sex by another woman dressed as a man. The scene draws particular emphasis on the faux courtship by the two before engaging in sexual intercourse as spectators in the room look on. The narrative again reinforces one of its dominant ideologies: the importance of black sexual identity.
In addition, the scene also functions as a device for reintroducing Sweetback to the spectator and the main story of the narrative. The woman performing as a man is transformed into Sweetback by the “good dyke Fairy Godmother.” The woman is changed through a series of dissolves. The audience is informed of the police’s (who are white) plan to use one of the male sex workers as a faux suspect for a recent murder in the city. After having sex with the woman, as the two white officers watch, the Fairy Godmother offers the other women in the room an opportunity to “test” Sweetback. A white woman stands before the camera cuts back to the officer’s whose smiles change to scornful glares. The Fairy Godmother then informs the white woman that the offer is only for the “sisters” once again establishing the importance strong sexual proclivity amongst African American men and women.
The narrative soon connects to the social and political ideologies shared by a large segment of the black community during the early seventies: the need for black unity amongst the community. The narrative discourse shifts its focus to this in the scene with Sweetback and the two white police officers. The officers arrest Sweetback explaining to him they only wanted to use him in order to give the illusion that they were making progress in their investigation. As they drive Sweetback to the police station the officers receive a public disturbance call from the dispatcher. The disturbance is revealed to be a black power rally. While the police rush to the scene to break up the commotion (chants of black power), which is only heard off screen, the camera remains fixed on Sweetback with a wide angle shot. The crowd is heard off-screen reacting to the presence of the cops. The camera, still focused on Sweetback, begins to zoom into a close up shot of Sweetback listening to the action of the crowd.
The police apprehend one of the members of the black power movement, Moo Moo taking him on for a ride along with Sweetback. They take him to undisclosed location and start to beat him while he’s handcuffed to Sweetback. The cops verbally accuse him of “stirring the natives.” There are a series of cuts from the police striking Moo Moo on the ground to close up shots of Sweetback face followed by close-ups of his hands as he makes a fist with the cuffs on his hands. Sweetback then attacks both police offers brutally beating them nearly to death. He saves Moo Moo from the assault then releases him from the handcuffs setting him free.
The social and political message of this scene becomes clear. It effectively calls for unity amongst the black community while granting privilege to the Black Nationalist ideological approach. Although never explicitly stated, it is clear from Moo Moo’s participation in the rally and the chants heard off screen that he is a member of some kind of Black Nationalist organization which serves as the filmic representation of the rising tide of Black Nationalist movements in America post-Civil rights movement such as the Black Panther Party. Sweetback’s assault on the corrupt white police officers in favor of Moo Moo highlights the revolutionary ideology of the narrative.
Regarding the nature of the social ideology present in Sweetback’s narrative, Ed Guerrero writes:
Although Sweet Sweetback was enormously popular, it also precipitated a storm of controversy, setting off a discursive, wide ranging debate over its aesthetic value and social utility to the freedom struggle of the black community. Sweetback brought to the surface of African American discourse the subtle fissures and cracks of class tension, ideological conflict, and aesthetic arguments that had been simmering in the black social formation since the winding down of the civil rights movement (87).
At this point in the narrative, Sweetback assumes the role of the collective oppressed black community engaged in a struggle to free himself of the chains of the racism in America. Sweetback, at first, symbolically represents the idea of the black community’s vulnerability under the rule of white oppression. While contemplating whether or not to attack the police officers, the camera places emphasis on the handcuffs Sweetback uses to attack the cops. A series of close up shots on the cuffs wrapped around Sweetback’s knuckles are covered with blood from the officers. The close ups of the cuffs can be viewed as a declaration of Sweetback or in this case the black community breaking away from the corrupt racist society “by any means necessary.”
The handcuffs furthermore are metaphoric representations of the shackles that bonded Sweetback to his oppressive adversaries while the blood and the brutal beating of the police are both filmic representations of a violent philosophical approach to the freedom struggle of the black community; an approach that directly connects the narrative discourse of Sweetback to political and social ideologies of figures such as Malcolm X and the members of the black panther party after him.
Following his assault on the police officers, Sweetback flees and becomes a fugitive of the law. The film cinema verite’ style allows the narrative to follow Sweetback on his journey through the black community as he attempts to escape to the Mexican border. Along the way, Sweetback encounters various members and institutions of the black community such as the church, gambling houses, and more brothels while pursued by the police. As Sweetback runs from the police the narrative uses a series of montage editing to take the spectator along the journey with Sweetback. The narrative space is never clearly defined and much like the previous scenes in the film there is no dialogue. As Sweetback scales the decrepit space of the black community with police sirens heard off-screen, the spectator is given a detailed view of the decaying, crumbling buildings and shattered landscape of the African American social space.
The sequences of shots are experimental because they are not presented in the traditional narrative structure familiar to Hollywood. Rather than using continuity editing which would take Sweetback from one clearly defined social space to another, the film shows a white image of Sweetback’s legs running across the screen and superimposed over the landscape. So through montage Van Peeples is able to not only keep the spectator in the journey with Sweetback but also draw attention to the sociological discourse the film offers which is a strong commentary and critique of the hardening, dilapidated social and economical conditions of the black community.
After the extended montage running sequence, the narrative shifts to continuity editing when Sweetback returns to the brothel after the incident with the police. Sweetback meets with the head pimp of the brothel, Beetle, who informs Sweetback that the police want to question him. At this point in the narrative the police only suspect Sweetback and are not sure he’s committed the crime. Beetle tells Sweetback not worry because no matter what happens he will look after him.
The nuances of this scene aid in the film’s overall social commentary and black unity theme. In the sequence, Beetle gives a lengthy speech explaining to Sweetback the importance of sticking together for the people. This is the first time within the narrative that the spectator is explicitly given the social message of the film. The scene begins with Beetle exiting the shower addressing the camera as Sweetback. The shot then cuts to another shot of Sweetback standing in the same position. The shots rotate from the first person in which Beetle, while addressing Sweetback, in essence is addressing the audience. It is particularly important to pay close attention to the language in this sequence. As previously stated, Beetle explains to Sweetback not to worry about the place. He tells him they need to stick together because the “Man can’t bother us if we together.” Beetle also holds both his fists in the air while speaking.
On the surface, Beetle appears to be inarticulate and a bit unintelligent. However, I argue, Van Peeples (opting to use nonunion actors) allowed the actors to speak what many consider “black dialect” that is Ebonics or broken English. This helps understand a few key elements in the scene that reinforce the dominant narrative discourse of the film. Beetle speaks Ebonics and addresses the Sweetback while who is in the position of the camera therefore he is also addressing the spectator who, at that time, was universally expected to be the black community. His dialogue is not meant to be understood by audiences who are not use to speaking that way, and Van Peeples, introspectively, it was not intended for white audiences. Beetle’s plea for togetherness while simultaneously pumping both fists once again highlights the filmic representation of the black power/black unity movement of the seventies.
As the film continues, Sweetback’s journey into the black community intensifies after the police discover that he did in fact beat the other cops. Sweetback’s descent forces him to use his sexual agency to navigate the city and evade capture all while fighting against the “man” in the narrative. He is able to out dual a white Madam through sex, spears and kills more cops with a pool stick, reunite and once again save the Black Nationalist character Moo Moo, heal his wounds using his own urine, bite the head off a lizard before eating it, kills the dogs pursuing him, and escape to the Mexican border ending the film with a shot of a hillside landscape with text appearing that reads: “A Baad Asssss Nigger is coming back to collect some dues…” The final narrative declaration of facing the struggle of freedom of the black community by any means necessary including violence. Melvin Van Peeples commented on the film saying, “The Message of Sweetback is that if you can get it together and stand up to the Man, you can win” (Bogle, p. 238, 2001).
On the level of a broader interpretation of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s narrative discourse, I argue, that the film is aesthetically narrative structure of a folk hero. Donald Bogle makes the argument that Melvin Van Peeple’s himself mythologized the social pimp folk hero that emerged as a result of Sweet Sweetback stating:
With the glamourization of the ghetto, however, came also the elevation of the pimp/outlaw/rebel as folk hero. Van Peeples played up to this new sensibility, and his film was the first to glorify the pimp. It failed, however, to explain the social conditions that made the pimp such an important figure. At the same time, the movie debased the black woman, depicting her as little more than a whore. His film remains, however, a striking social document on the nature and certain attitudes of the new era. Just as importantly in its own way (236).
I, however, would argue that the film itself is a filmic construction of a folk tale which creates a mythic, legendary figure conceived as a result of the social and political oppressions faced by the black community.
The audience is provided no background information on the character of Sweetback. When we first see the character as a young boy in the brothel, he is eating a great deal of food and his clothes and hair are dirty. The only aspects of Sweetback’s characterization that we learn are that he’s poor, possibly homeless, and is sexually gifted even at a young age. This is apparent when the prostitute dubs the hero Sweetback because of his abnormal sexual abilities that would later play a key role in helping the hero escape the dangers of the Man. When the spectator first sees the adult Sweetback he is presented as a silent figure despite his commanding presence. Sweetback is giving no real motivations until he strikes down the police officers to save Moo Moo.
It is important to also examine the formal style Van Peeple’s uses to construct the folk hero tale of Sweetback. The film cuts against the traditional mode of Hollywood narration by using majority montage edited sequence as opposed to continuity editing. In constructing Sweetback’s mythic status in the black community as folk hero for the people, Van Peeples carefully utilizes montage editing in several key sequences. Specifically, he uses montage editing when showing Sweetback running through the black community. The shots are fast pace and quickly cut and with shots of Sweetback’s legs running superimposed over the urban landscape of the film. I interpreted this particular use of montage editing as understanding Sweetback’s power over his domain (the black community). As the police search for Sweetback the scenes cut back and forward to sequences of shots of Sweetback in running across random areas of the community. In one of the more prominent montage sequences to use this technique, the audience is shown the police questioning several members of the black community though montage with shots cutting from the people speaking to the police back to Sweetback again running across several areas of the community.
Further establishing Sweetback’s agency is the fact that no person in the black community despite indications of having known Sweetback, offer to help the police. This again foregrounds the dominant message and social/cultural discourse of the film for the black community to unite against white oppression.
Sweetback as folk hero is further established in the scene when the two new officers arrest him after they discover he in fact had assaulted the two detectives. In the scene, the officers not only arrest Sweetback but they are instructed by the police Commissioner to beat Sweetback before bringing him in. The narrative again brings to the spectator’s attention the immediate threat of the corruption faced by the black community at the hands of racist institutions in America which are represented through the institution of the law.
During this scene, the collective black community is presented as a key part of the folk hero Sweetback’s agency. As the police officers call into the station, two children approach the squad car and ask the officers if they can wash their car for money. The officers refuse and the children disappear momentarily. They leave the car and proceed to assault Sweetback before returning to the car to find the black children wiping down their car anyway. The children flee upon seeing the police officers place Sweetback into the car. Once inside the squad car with Sweetback, flames ignite engulfing the roof top of the car.
During this scene, again there is a montage sequence when the flames ignite. The scene cuts to shots of young black children (who we assume, although it’s never explicitly stated, deliberately set the fire) laughing and mocking the police. There’s a cut to a shot of a black man opening the door for Sweetback then retreating back into the crowd. There’s a shot of Sweetback kneeling as the crowd covers him and hides him from the police further establishing his status as a folk hero. The montage sequence continues with shots of black people cheering as Sweetback escapes that then cut to the police fanning the flames, and blurred images of the decaying landscape with the flames of the car superimposed over the shot. This scene should not only be interpreted as another example of Sweetback’s mythic status as a folk hero for the black community but as a stylistic expression of the rising racial conflict and intolerance during the early part of the 1970s.
Sweetback not only stands as the physical personification of the black community, but for the narrative of the film, he represents revolutionary “savior” of the black community. Not only is this theme highlighted by the community’s insistence on protecting Sweetback, but its present in Sweetback’s characterization as well; specifically in his continuous efforts in saving and preserving Moo Moo, the filmic representation of the Black Nationalist movement. Taking for example several key moments in the narrative I will argue this point further.
The church scene is a particular fascinating example that not only positions Sweetback as the social and cultural filmic folk hero, but it also forefronts his mission to preserve the black power movement and the ideological social discourse of the narrative at large. In one of the rare instances in the film in which the narrative discourse moves forth through continuity editing, we see Sweetback enter a decaying, rotted church. The mise en scene is staggering and very expressive of the narrative’s message. The walls are falling apart and large amounts of paint peel from the wall. The building is clearly uninhabitable, however, at the moment of Sweetback’s arrival there’s a funeral service in progress with several people mourning a loss. The scene calls close attention to the characters resourcefulness and their complete wiliness to make do with the scrappy, broken down church.
Sweetback meets with the pastor of the church who, much like Beetle in an earlier scene, speaks to Sweetback as though speaking directly to the spectator. Sweetback assumes the position of the spectator once again as the Pastor delivers a lengthy filmic soliloquy. It’s also worth noting the Pastor is costumed in traditional African dashiki as opposed to a suit or pastoral robe which is much more common in the African American church.
This scene not only foregrounds Sweetback as a folk hero, but it presents a social commentary on the role of the institution of the black church. Specifically, the scene seeks to abandon the philosophical sentiment of the Civil rights movement for a more universal Black Nationalist approach that preached necessary violence as a means of overcoming oppression. The pastor explains to Sweetback (positioned as spectator) that his job as the leader of the church is to merely sell the people false dreams of hope and peace although they face death in everyday American society. He goes on to say that it’s his job to make them believe that they’ll have it better on the other side. This passage serves a reference to many of the civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. that preached the non-violence approach. The scene then shifts to privileging the voice of the Black Nationalist movement. The pastor tells Sweetback that Moo Moo and the others are preaching the “true religion” referring directly the teachings of the black power movement by ones such as Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton (who made the entire Black Panther Party see the film, and highly praised its narrative making the film itself a recruiting film for the Panther party) (Guerrero, 1993).
The pastor’s plea to Sweetback to save Moo Moo and the “others” is a clear indication through the narrative that the solution to the social struggle is best in the hands of the Black Nationalist movement. This ideology would later be shared by Sweetback himself when, after reuniting with Moo Moo, he is giving the opportunity to escape to Mexico with a black biker, but instead Sweetback instructs him to take Moo Moo. When told by the biker that he was instructed to take Sweetback, Sweetback tells the biker in one of his rare moments of dialogue in the film, that Moo Moo was the future of the black community and it was important that he be saved. He also Sweetback that he stopped the Man’s plan which is why the police were after him. Sweetback is again positioned as a folk hero and “savior” of the black community.
The final sequence of the film solidifies the dominant cultural and social discourse of the narrative as well as Sweetback’s filmic status as folk hero for the black community. The sequence begins with a wounded Sweetback, after treading his signature vest and cowboy hat, struggles to escape to the border of Mexico. During the sequence, Sweetback rolls on the ground in pain. For the first time in the narrative, there’s a voiceover of an unknown narrator that addresses Sweetback directly. The narrator is also accompanied by a choir of singers. As Sweetback squirms in pain, the narrator pleas with him not to give. He makes comments on progress in America stating “they been promising progress for 400 years and beating our heads in for the same time, ad probably will continue for another million years. Don’t give in Sweetback.” As this happens, the choir narration sings the Negro spiritual “Wade in the water” and Sweetback manages to stand up. I interpreted this scene as Sweetback once again drawing his strength from the black community with the voiceover representing the collective consciousness of the black community which our folk hero Sweetback has become “spiritually” connected to throughout the narrative.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was an incredible and historical breakthrough for filmic representation of African American experience. The film’s narrative serves as a cultural/social/political document indicative of the tense racial tensions and Black Nationalist movements that dominated the early part of the nineteen seventies. Sweetback, despite its criticism and grim images of the black community, I argue, is constructed as a highly stylized and experimental fantasy picture whose narrative focuses on a folk tale that metaphorically presents the filmic social and political tone of ghetto black life in America.
Bogle, D. (2001). Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks : An interpretive history of blacks in american films (4th ed.). New York: Continuum.
Guerrero. (1993). Framing blackness : The african american image in film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.