The film world is reeling over the loss of influential filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles who passed away yesterday in Manhattan. Van Peebles is best known for his classic independent films Watermelon Man (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), which offered a bold critique of racism, power and Black liberation in the United States. Van Peebles, the father of actor/director Mario Van Peebles, created the blueprint for what would become the Blaxploitation genre of filmmaking with his Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasssss Song.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Van Peebles was the son of a tailor and homemaker. After graduating high school, he enrolled in West Virginia State University before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University. Following graduation, the future filmmaker joined the Air Force and began writing. In 1956, he married German actress and photographer Maria Marx, who appeared with him in this iconic film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. They lived in Europe and Mexico before he returned to the states and worked as a cable car operator in San Francisco.
In the early 1960s Van Peebles published four novels and one-story collection in French and made a short film, Cinq cent balles (1965), about a child trying to retrieve a banc note in a tenuous world. In 1968, Van Peebles made his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission). The renaissance man starred with actress Nicole Berger in the film which explored themes around interracial romance, nation and identity. Three-Day Pass was well-received by audiences and critics and put him on the map in Hollywood, many of whom thought they had discovered a French auteur instead of a talented Black man from Chicago.
In 1970, Van Peebles made his first Hollywood film entitled Watermelon Man starring Godfrey Cambridge. Released by Columbia Pictures, the film told the story of a racist White man who one day wakes up Black and the fallout from his family, friends and place of employment because of it. In interviews, Melvin Van Peebles said it was the experience of making Watermelon Man within the Hollywood film system that convinced him to work as an independent filmmaker so he could have complete control over his films.
The independent artist struck out on his own with the goal of making Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film that explored themes of Black power and liberation. The auteur raised $500,000 from investments by supporters including Bill Cosby and earnings from his previous work. The film featured a soundtrack by Earth, Wind and Fire, a then up and coming jazz and R&B band and offered a gritty, unapologetic look into Black America’s underground economy. The film highlighted the story of a wrongfully accused Black man’s journey from sideshow to revolutionary. Sweetback put forth a bold Black aesthetic embracing Black fashion of the time, elements of the Black Power movement and articulating the idea of American freedom through a distinctly Black revolutionary socio-political lens.
Known as the Godfather of Black Cinema, Van Peebles was a man of many talents, all of which were on display with the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he produced, directed, starred in and distributed the film. While Van Peebles continued writing and directing film, he appeared as an actor in 44 films and television shows including Boomerang, Living Single, Panther, Girlfriends and Peeples. He also continued writing and performing songs, releasing six solo albums over the years.
“We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles offered. “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.”
Melvin Van Peebles is survived by three children Mario Van Peebles, Megan Van Peebles and Max Van Peebles and a host of grandchildren. He was 89.
NEW YORK – H.E. Nàna Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana, heralded plans to construct a state-of-the-art museum complex honoring the legacy of world-renown Black intellectual and civil rights pioneer Dr. W.E.B Du Bois as an important symbolic monument.
“The museum will provide in Ghana, yet another important monument to the collective struggle of the African peoples to get their rightful place in this world,” said President Akufo-Addo in his remarks prior to the signing of a historic partnership arrangement between the Government of Ghana and the W.E.B. Du Bois Museum Foundation’s affiliate in Ghana. The signing took place in New York City where the U.S. foundation is headquartered.
The agreement was signed on behalf of the Government of Ghana by Hon. Ken Ofori-Atta, Minister of Finance of Ghana, and Dr. Ibrahim Mohammed Awal, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Signing for the W.E.B. Du Bois Museum Foundation were Japhet Aryiku, Executive Director of the foundation in the U.S., and Humphrey Ayim-Darke, Board Member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Museum Foundation, Ghana.
“Mr. President, let me reassure you of our commitment to making your beloved Ghana a hub of Pan-African research and heritage tourism,” said Daniel Rose, Chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Museum Foundation, as he kicked off the ceremony. Rose is a philanthropist and leading real estate developer with deep ties to Ghana.
The Du Bois Memorial Centre in Accra where Dr. Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, are buried, opened to the public in 1985, but in recent years had required additional upkeep and maintenance. Two years ago, Rose and two board members of the foundation, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard University and foremost scholar on Dr. Du Bois, and Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor at New York University whose father had worked with Dr. Du Bois, approached President Akufo-Addo about transforming the Du Bois Memorial Centre into a world-class living museum for scholars and heritage tourists.
The partnership arrangement will grant authority for the W.E.B Du Bois Museum Foundation to construct a multi-million dollar museum complex to preserve Dr. Du Bois’ legacy over a 50-year period. The complex will be designed by Sir David Adjaye, renowned Ghanaian architect and designer of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The Foundation’s goal is to realize the Du Bois Museum’s full potential as an international treasure and historic memorial honoring one of the leading and most revered Black voices in world history. The ambitious project features a museum, library and reading room, event hall, outdoor auditorium and amphitheater, lecture space, guest house for visiting scholars and the refurbished bungalow where Dr. Du Bois lived and worked until his death. The complex also includes a Memorial Pavilion, housing the remains of Dr. Du Bois and the cremated ashes of his wife.
Dr. Du Bois, who was a confidant of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, became a citizen of Ghana and resided in the country until his death in 1963. While living in Ghana, Du Bois envisioned building a unified ancestral home for Africans in the diaspora around the world.
President Akufo-Addo has invited the Africans Diaspora to follow the footsteps of Du Bois by making Africa their home and contributing to the continent’s development through the government’s “Year of Return” and “Beyond the Return” campaigns.
“The ‘Beyond the Year of Return’ campaign promotes economic empowerment and encourages people in the Diaspora to come to Africa to invest, to live, and to do more to uplift the continent, “ said Japhet Aryiku, Executive Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Museum Foundation. Aryiku, a Ghanaian American with more than 40 years of experience in corporate America and the philanthropic community, was inspired at a young age by Du Bois’ writings and ideals.
Other speakers at the ceremony included Kwame Anthony Appiah, novelist and professor of philosophy and ethics, New York University and board member, W.E.B Du Bois Museum Foundation; and guests included Hon. Shirley Aryorkor Botchwey, Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. E Hajia Alima Mahama , Ghana’s Ambassador to the USA, Akwasi Agyeman, CEO, Ghana Tourism Authority and Humphrey Ayim-Darke of the Du Bois Museum Foundation, Ghana.
ABOUT W.E.B DU BOIS MUSEUM FOUNDATION: The W.E.B Du Bois Museum Foundation is a leading New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the life, purpose, and legacy of Dr. W.E. B Du Bois. Daniel Rose, a philanthropist and leading real estate developer of major properties serves as the foundation’s Chairman of the Board. Ambassador Harold Doley, Jr. is the foundation’s President. Prominent board members include renowned scholars of the Du Bois legacy Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University; Kwame Anthony Appiah of New York University; Emmanuel K. Akyeampong of the Center for African Studies at Harvard University; and Deborah Rose, a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
This content was originally published here.