The Fifteen Minutes That Lasted Forever:

Melvin Van Peebles and the Politics of Winning

By Dee Dee Vega

One of the more telling moments in the new documentary How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) by director Joe Angio is when a young Melvin Van Peebles is asked by a reporter about his political and social perspective. He simply answers, “My politics is to win.” And so it was. Novelist, cable car driver, musician, filmmaker, Wall Street trader—whatever it was that Melvin Van Peebles wanted to do, he conquered. A boy from a poor Chicago family born on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance (he was a young child when Richard Wright was penning Native Son in the same city)—Melvin rose to become what, in his own approximation, is “the Rosa Parks of Black Cinema.” What was supposed to be his fifteen minutes of fame when he managed to successfully complete Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song in 1971, an independent production rife with sex, black pride and the unfaltering ability to subvert the racial stereotypes that had plagued depictions of African Americans in film, turned into a legacy of accomplishment that paved a road for filmmakers and black artists. When the last frame of Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song flashed across the screen claiming “Watch Out…A Baad Asssss Nigger Is Coming Back to Collect Some Dues!” it became not only a rallying cry for forward thinking black people at the time, including the Black Panther Party who made Melvin’s film required viewing for members, but it became a warning to capitalist, white-dominated Hollywood that a black man had found a way to turn his blackness into a commodity. Indeed, Sweetback became the highest grossing independent film of its time and a whole new handbook of battle tactics for sticking it to the man was born. From using non-union labor to make his film to branding the film “Rated X By An All White Jury,” thus giving birth to cinema’s greatest marketing ploy, when the MPAA slapped the film with the dreaded rating, Melvin took the tilted beaucratic system of American entertainment and fucked it in the ear.

Director Joe Angio spoke with fRINGE underground about his new documentary about Melvin Van Peebles, How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It).

How did you first become interested in Melvin?

Well, I first became aware of Melvin as someone who is much more than a filmmaker through a friend of mine, Brent Nichols, who was a colleague of Melvin’s on the floor of the American Stock Exchange in the mid-’80s. Like anyone who follows film, I was aware of Melvin through Sweetback, but Brent was the first person to tell me about all these other things Melvin had done—the music, the novels, the theater stuff, running marathons, and so on. Then, in one of life’s fortuitous coincidences, a few days after Brent and I had first talked about Melvin, I was out with a friend who is a film editor, and we got talking about movies. When I asked him why he chose to be an editor, he told me it was because of this film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles. I had never seen Sweetback at that point, but I immediately went out and rented it, and like anyone who sees Sweetback for the first time, I was just blown away.

The seed was planted then, and this was back around ’88, ’89.

As a first time filmmaker, how is it that you settled on that medium (documentary film) to present the research you did on Melvin?

Actually, this is my third documentary, though it’s my first feature-length film. I co-directed (with Joel Cohen) a 30-minute film on Mardi Gras (A Feast of Fools) and a 60-minute film on playground basketball culture in Chicago (More than a Game). Because I had some success as a magazine editor (I was the Editor-in-Chief of Time Out New York for almost eight years until six weeks ago, and had been at a few publications before that), a lot of people have assumed I’m making the jump from print to film. But the reality of it is that I was doing film long before magazines, which was my accidental career! Thus, it was natural that I conceived of doing Melvin’s story as a film. Plus, since so much of what Melvin has done throughout his professional and artistic career is so visual, I figured there would be ample archival footage to cull from; what I never imagined was that there would be so much and it would be so rich.

There is an obvious similarity between Melvin’s experience as an independent filmmaker as well as writer, producer, PR guy and your current experience creating your own documentary. What has that experience been like?

Well, first of all, I’m loath to even mention my experiences and Melvin’s in the same breath—I mean, they don’t even compare! Melvin accomplishes more before 8AM each day than most of us do in a day. In a week! Hell, I’m not even up at 8!

But on a very superficial level, by virtue of the fact that we (meaning me and my producer, Michael Solomon) never had any money during production, we were forced to do everything ourselves: sound, camera, everything! And now, of course, a lot of the promotion. We have signed with FilmsTransit to rep our film worldwide, so that’s taken a big burden off of our shoulders, but while they’re handling the TV and home-video sale, Michael and I have been overseeing a limited theatrical release, which started last month at Film Forum in NYC.

The part of this whole process that’s been most surprising to me is how much time and effort has been required since the film’s been finished. I finished editing a week before we made our world premiere last April at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, NC, and at that time, I was really looking forward to having one job for a year (and by that, I meant my day job at Time Out). During the entire seven-plus years that we were shooting the film—and the schedule was intermittent, depending on my schedule, Michael’s and Melvin’s; it wasn’t seven solid years of production—it was never a problem juggling the film with the demands of Time Out. Aside from a three-month period during the edit when I took a partial leave of absence from the magazine, all the work on the film was done on my time: evenings, weekends, vacations, etc. But once the film was finished…meetings, festivals, even just the busy work—clerical, assembling press kits, sending out applications, etc.—was really demanding. More so than I ever imagined. So that was one of the major reasons I left the magazine at the end of the year—to concentrate on seeing the release of this film through to its natural conclusion, but also to get my next project up and running.

How long has the project been going on?

Well, I moved to New York from Chicago in the fall of 1991, right after I finished the basketball film, and this was going to be my next project. So I started some rudimentary research then—remember, there was no Internet then, so I was spending time up at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.

Then, life just kind of happened: This other project fell into my lap that I was pursuing for a while, and it looked like I would get the money to shoot it in 1994-95. That’s around the same time when my freelance fact-checking job at Men’s Journal magazine turned into a full-time job. And in 1995, I took the job as managing editor of Vibe magazine. So I was concentrating on that for a while—I hadn’t had a full-time job in more than ten years, so it was a nice change of pace for me just to have a regular paycheck!

But after about a year or so at Vibe, I was really itching to get back to film. But rather than revive that other project—the one that had more or less come to me—I wanted to do the Melvin film. Mind you, at this point I had not even met Melvin! But one day I was having lunch with my friend Michael Solomon, whom I’d met at the Torino Film Festival in 1998 (he was a programmer there and had selected our Mardi Gras film to appear in the festival), and I told him about this film I wanted to make. And he told me, “Joe, I know Melvin really well!” So, I guess that’s when I really started researching the film in earnest, around the summer of ’96. I wrote a proposal, put together a budget, and Michael was just going to help me reach Melvin. About a year later, I asked Michael if he would be interested in producing, and he was thrilled to be part of it. He, in turn, introduced me to Melvin, and Melvin came on board. He said yes, with no questions asked. I learned right away that Melvin was a stand-up guy, because at that first meeting, before I even really introduced myself, he told me, “Michael Solomon has helped me a lot over the years”—i.e., helping Melvin to get his films distributed in Italy—“and he vouches for you, so I’ll do this film.” It was that easy! This, now, was late ’97, early ’98, and my first shoot was in March, ’98, less than one week after my first week at Time Out New York! So, that’s the long answer to your question, but you can see, there’s a few stages to the project’s “start”: 1991, 1996 & 1998!

What have you learned about the process of filmmaking from being around Melvin?

Remarkably—and thankfully—Melvin never insinuated himself into the filmmaking process. He let me make the film I wanted to make. He never told us what to shoot, never asked to see the footage. Nothing. (Well, during our first interview, he did try to change my camera position, but when he was fiddling with his lavalier mike, I surreptitiously inched the camera back to my original position!) So, there really wasn’t any of that learning from the master.

However—and this goes back to your earlier question about similarities—we did end up shooting in a largely guerilla-style, which is very Melvin-esque. And that was partly by design and partly by necessity, again, because we never had any money!

There is, of course, your new documentary as well as Mario’s film BaadAssss that have both captured Melvin’s story in different forms. What do you think accounts for the recent cultural interest in Melvin—especially his life during the Sweet Sweetbackdays?

I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. There’s some coincidence to the close proximity of the releases of Mario’s film and the documentary. In fact, I remember when I first heard of Mario’s film, I was told that it was a documentary—and this was two, three years after we’d already shot Mario—and I was thinking, “Mario, what are you doing?!?” Then, when I saw his film, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2003, I realized not only that the films were extremely different in style and tone, but also that they would probably complement one another. But as to why the recent cultural interest in Melvin, that’s harder to pinpoint. God knows, for us, we never expected it would take us almost eight years to finish the film—which led to its coming out around the same time as (in fact, a year after!) Mario’s film. So, some of it is coincidence. But also, there’s lately been a resurgence of American black culture from the ’70s. Tarantino with Jackie Brown. A few years ago during the NBA playoffs, NBC—or whoever had the NBA then—rolled out an ad campaign that emphasized that era—shots of Dr. J, Larry Kenon, all these players with these big, wild ’fros, with a slammin’ funk soundtrack. Isaac Julien made the documentary a few years ago on Blaxploitation films, Baadasssss Cinema. So it’s been in the air.

Plus, I think the time is right for a re-examination of Melvin’s work. Obviously, that was one of my goals in making the film: to shine a light on this woefully underappreciated American artist. And there’s some signs that this is happening: The Classic Theater Company of Harlem restaged Melvin’s musical Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death in the fall of ’04. And that may move Off Broadway this year. Madlib, under his Quasimodo moniker, sampled a lot of Melvin’s stuff from his three A&M records in the mid-to-late ’60s—and now, they’re collaborating on a new double record. I mean, even Sly Stone appearing at this year’s Grammy Awards indicates that Melvin's era is very much in vogue right now. As for, why? I don’t know. That’s a question for the sociologists. Or at least someone smarter than me!

There is amazing archival footage in the film such as the French TV interviews. How did you go about accessing that material?

It was really a combination of a few things. First, Melvin possesses an extraordinary collection of videotapes of pretty much everything he’s ever done: not only his films, but recordings of theater work, along with every TV appearance he’s ever done. It was from a tape of Melvin’s that I first saw that French documentary on him from 1966 that we used in the film. So, I had access to Melvin’s personal treasure trove of material.

But we also just uncovered a lot of it in our research. I was doing research at the Museum of Television & Radio when I discovered that clip from Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death from the PBS public-affairs program, Soul. Michael found the footage from the 1972 Tony Awards, I think also at the Museum of Television & Radio. Then, when he was talking to the company in France that was giving us (I should say selling us…) the French documentary footage, he found out more of less by accident that they also had that footage you see of Melvin on some French talk show from the early ’60s talking about his books. Finally, our archival researcher, Judy Aley, found a lot of the non-Melvin footage we used for texture and to place events in the proper historical context.

Clearly Melvin has his hands in so many worlds. I don’t just mean being a novelist and a Wall Street trader. I mean knowing Henri Langlois and appearing on Midnight Blue with naked girls. How do you approach these elements of Melvin’s life as a documentarian?

Well, I’ve said from day one: Melvin’s story is just so rich, that all I can do is fuck it up! So, I just had to be true to it. Of course, you create a point-of-view by the choices you make, whether it’s what you keep or what you discard; how you present it; who you have saying it, etc. And since I use no narrator, I wanted the structure to be like a conversation about Melvin—only we had the luxury of hearing from the man himself when you needed amplification or clarification.

One thing I really tried hard to do was not make it a hagiography; the film is certainly admiring, but it’s not fawning. At no point do you ever hear anyone say, “Melvin was the greatest this or the best at that.” Nor did I try to present him as an artistic genius—you can argue about the overall artistic value of his work—that’s a job for the critics, not for me. The thing that interested me was the breadth of his work, how he fearlessly sought to express himself in so many different fields without concerning himself with—much less acknowledging—the boundaries that any man, much less a black man growing up in the middle of the last century, faced.

But of even more interest to me was how he did it; how he plunged headfirst into fields that he had no formal training in and taught himself how to do it, devising his own rules and codes along the way, whether it was writing French in the patois of the street, devising his own notation system for writing music, establishing his own shorthand for making trades on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, and so on. That’s the recurring theme that I feel ties the whole film together. And once you’ve established this structure, all these myriad, diverse elements—whether it’s befriending Henri Langlois, discussing literature on a stuffy French TV chat show, or promoting Waltz of the Stork on a public-access smut channel—hang together and begins to make sense.

Do you think there are young filmmakers out there capable of doing what Melvin did—that are making a politically relevant film for a mass audience?

The eternal optimist in me says yes. But we live in such a different age now. Anything with any edge, be it cultural, political, or artistic, gets co-opted so quickly nowadays, whether by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, or the media, that it loses its bite almost immediately. I guess you can argue that Michael Moore did just that with Fahrenheit 9-11. But that was a propaganda film; Sweetback was revolutionary. As high as the stakes were before the 2004 election, you can argue that the stakes were higher when Sweetback came out. Moore was engaging in a polemic that he hoped would alter the outcome of the national election; Melvin was hoping to—and actually helping to—foist social change.

Another thing you’ve got to remember is that there are varying degrees or definitions of the term mass audience. Melvin put the boot to Hollywood’s long-held notion that there was no “black audience.” He proved there’s a sizable, avid black audience. But is that a “mass audience?" I don’t know. Certainly white America had no interest in Sweetback—as Melvin had no interest in white America; that’s not who he made that film for. But as Manny Azenberg, who produced Aint Supposed to Die…, and Woodie King, the director of the New Federal Theatre, say in the film, that while Melvin helped to put audience members who had never been to the theater in the seats, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills that Broadway demanded. And white audiences simply didn’t want to pay money to see that kind of a play—they went to the theater to be entertained. It might be an apples-and-oranges comparison, since the reach of theater and film, respectively, are vastly different, but the point, I guess, is how you define a mass audience.

What are your future plans for How To Eat Your Watermelon… after it’s Film Forum run, Joe?

We have offer sheets for TV and home-video distribution, so we’re just waiting to sign those contracts, which should be any day. Also, we’re going to take it out to a select number of cities, theatrically, so it will qualify for Oscar consideration next year. (Some of this is through Emerging Pictures, a newish company that distributes digital films to venues that project them digitally.) But then we also have an ambitious plan to do some direct marketing, with help from black-film, student- and cultural-societies across the country to sell the DVD off our website ( Melvin and I may also do a university lecture tour (well, he’ll do the lecturing!), where we’ll show the film, along with a selection of Melvin’s work, similar to the Film Forum retrospective.

Melvin is currently working on new film and music projects as well. Is this guy just completely unstoppable?

In a word: yes!

I know you are coming from a background as a writer and editor. Do you plan on continuing with film projects as well?

Well, my background is more in film (actually, it’s initially in TV; I was a sports producer in Chicago after college), so yes, I have a number of projects in the works, starting with a film on this amazing Swiss photographer, Arnold Odermatt. He took these beautiful, haunting pictures of traffic accidents while he was working as a policeman in this tiny hamlet in Switzerland, for which he’s been recognized late in life as an artist; and he's been celebrated in major shows and exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 2001. I seem to be drawn to these people who find their art in peculiar, sometimes accidental ways! (In Odermatt’s case, literally!)