Melvin Van Pebbles, the legendary filmmaker who revolutionized Black cinema in the 1970s, has died at the age of 89.
Van Peebles was known for directing productions such as 1971s classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man and Don’t Play Us Cheap. He wrote, directed and starred in Sweet Sweetback... , also raising the money to produce it. The film was one of the first by a Black director that was highly personal in tone and perspective, yet a national hit to a broader, mainstream audience.
The Criterion Collection issued a statement announcing Van Peebles's passing, and his son, director/actor Mario Van Peebles, shared words about his iconic father.
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” his son Mario Van Peebles said in a statement released by Criterion. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? 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.”
Born in Chicago, Melvin Van Peebles attended Ohio Wesleyan University, earning a degree in literature. Van Peebles also served in the Air Force. In addition to his filmmaking, he published French and English novels, wrote two Broadway musicals that he produced simultaneously; and wrote and performed spoken-word albums.