Groundbreaking Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles Dead at 89

zo Zo is a staff writer at Okayplayer where he covers…
Playwright, novelist, and composer, Melvin Van Peebles, right, directs a rehearsal of a musical theatre performance of his acclaimed classic film "Sweet Sweetback" at the BRIC Arts Center in Brooklyn.
Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images.

A decorated novelist, actor, musician, and filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles was considered the “godfather of black cinema.”

The film world is mourning the loss of Melvin Van Peebles. The groundbreaking multi-hyphenate filmmaker died on Tuesday night in his Manhattan home with family by his side. He was 89-years-old.

Van Peebles death was announced on behalf of his family in a joint statement from The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.

In a storied career, Van Peebles was a decorated novelist, actor, musician, and director, who used the stage, the screen, the page,  and virtually any format he could to center and showcase the complexity of the black experience in America in the wake of the civil rights movement. Working with and around the studio system when needed, Van Peebles charted a fiercely independent course as a filmmaker, helming Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures in 1970 and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the iconic 1971 film, for which he wrote, directed, scored, self-funded, and even designed a marketing campaign (“Rated X … By an All-White Jury.”). The latter film was selected for preservation by The Library of Congress just last year. It will also be included in a forthcoming commemorative boxset from Criterion, which is slated to arrive next week.

Actor and director Mario Van Peebles offered a few words on his father’s death in a brief statement. “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?,” Van Peebles wrote. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”


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