"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"SWEETBACK" by guest blogger Emukule Ekirapa

The Black Panther Party dedicated a whole issue of its newspaper to Van Peebles' film

"Sweet Sweerback’s Badass Song" is a foreign taste that is best consumed with some knowledge of race relations in 1960’s America. It is unapologetic and raw in its depiction of hypocrisy. Police brutality mixed with communal laughter. Sexual exploitation mixed with religious comfort. From the beginning, the black man in America is defined as a performer. A numb, sexually charged puppet.The protagonists’ life seems destined for this. This is not a story about a black man in America, but specifically the assumed journey of a black boy raised in the ghetto streets of white-dominated America. This is an airing-out session. A mirror of self. Visuals screaming to its black audience, “Look how fucked up we’ve become!” Everyone outside this black ghetto family is just an observer. 

Director Melvin Van Peebles is very clear about his depiction of conflict – it’s good vs bad. Bad is the white man and his law of oppression. Good is any response that goes against the white man and his law of oppression.Bad is not the little black boy forced to have sex with an African American whore. Bad is not the protagonist profession as a phallus for hire. Bad is not the act of talking directly to a guest while taking a shit with the bathroom door open.  These are not bad habits but rather consequences caused by white oppression. 

Black manhood is core to the story of sweetback. Physical brutality is the only response to physical brutality. And despite the endless cat and mouse hunts, dialogue and reason are not welcome. The only ‘good’ black men are those working for the corrupt city police force – an awkward relationship depicted so well in the film. Women are purely used for sex.

The film is visually unconcerned from both a technical and aesthetic viewpoint and works well in depicting the disorganized life of black ghetto culture. One will most likely leave this movie confused, annoyed, intrigued, curious, and satisfied. It’s not often you get to see an honest self-assessment of black culture on film.

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