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Queer Oedipal Drag in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Baadasssss!

This article argues that the appearance of Mario Van Peebles in the films Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Baadasssss! performs a kind of “queer Oedipal drag” that complicates notions of sexuality and time in both films. Mario appears first as a young Sweetback, the iconic revolutionary, whose sexual initiation serves as the opening of Sweetback and then later as his father, Melvin, in Baadasssss!, a biopic that tells the story of the Sweetback’s production.

“Secretly for some time now I’d felt like my father’s father. As if on some level I was his protector, played out through the role of son.”

There is a queer line of kinship that links Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, as father and son as well as artists. Each filmmaker explores the revolutionary potential of an exposed black body: Melvin’s in his acclaimed 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Mario’s in the 2003 biopic Baadasssss!, which tells the story of the creation of this film. The former follows the emergence of a rebellious black outlaw who is forced to leave his job as a sex performer by two white cops in need of a stand-in potential black suspect. He later becomes a symbol of black liberation and revolution after beating those same cops while they are engaged in the systematic brutalization of the troublemaking black radical, Moo-Moo. The latter dramatizes the struggles of Melvin to write, produce, direct, star in, edit, and distribute the film that was pivotal in identifying the social, sexual, and political concerns taken up by the blaxploitation movement, with Mario performing as his father. Scholars note that Sweetback was one of the first films to feature a strong black male lead who is also engaged in actively resisting systematic racism and police brutality. Many critics, such as Stephane Dunn, conflate Sweetback and blaxploitation to call attention to how the film “investigates the historical social condition of the black lower-class community through the metaphor of dominant notions of black male sexuality” (57). However, important work by Paula Massood and Novotny Lawrence have repositioned the history of the movement in relation to the distribution of the film Cotton Comes to Harlem to better clarify the cinematic and thematic traditions of the genre. Nevertheless, Sweetback’s overt sexuality and radical politics produces a similarly radical performance that extends to the filmic retelling of its creation. This is also a queer performance that requires a son not only to perform as his father but to come to terms with his own filmic debut as a sexualized child in his father’s film.

My use of “queer,” both here and throughout this analysis, borrows from Judith Halberstam’s generative use of “queer” to describe all that resists and refuses normativity in the influential In a Queer Time and Place. While this is a broad use of the term, I believe it helps explain the relationship between both films and their critique of normative sexuality and family structure through a looping filmic temporality. I sometimes use this term as a noun to describe objects and ideas that resist normative categorization, but I also use it as a verb to mark the active negotiation of this resistance. Although my argument borrows these terms from queer theory, I am more interested in exploring how these concepts help describe the sexual politics of two films invested in the production of macho black masculinity. I argue that the tangled nexus of sexual and artistic performance linking father to son, Sweetback to Baadasssss!, embodies a queer relationship to time and sexuality that affects the politics of both films. It is in these multiple layers of performance, each mediated and saturated by queerly sexual—or perhaps sexually queer—bodies, [End Page 41] that we can understand the centrality of hypersexualized bodies for staging the political revolution inherent to blaxploitation films. Joe Wlodarz describes how blaxploitation films commodified the strong, black revolutionary male characters in these films almost instantaneously, and reduced the complexities of characters such as Sweetback to mere icons of violent, macho identity. He argues that many blaxploitation films use the presence of peripheral queer characters to clarify the sexual and racial identity of the black macho protagonist (20).1 I take up the link between the black macho character and queerness, as a sexual and political category, to focus on how both Mario and Melvin Van Peebles “queer” normative family structure through performance and directorial choices that foreground a queer relationship between father and son that constitutes a radical black politics.

To demonstrate the tangled web of sexual politics and performance linking both films, I begin with a brief discussion of the opening sex scene in Sweetback. This scene helps clarify what I describe as the “queer Oedipal drag” linking both films, and is pivotal for demonstrating how sexuality plays a central role in Sweetback. I then discuss the promotional posters used by each film to call attention to how they frame their own investments in sexual material to point out how “the figure of the child,” another critical term I take from queer theory, mediates our experience of Baadasssss! and its retelling of the creation of Sweetback. I then return to Sweetback’s opening sequence to underline the sexual politics contained within this scene and suggest how Baadasssss! contextualizes Melvin’s decision to film his own son performing as a sexually active young Sweetback within a discourse of black masculinity. This decision becomes a negotiation of a father’s interest in imposing a particular form of gender identity and sexual maturation on his son, which necessitates an understanding of the “innocent” child as sexual. I then open up my analysis of both films to consider how their relationship requires an approach to temporality that accepts the rearrangement of linear time through Mario’s decision to stage moments from Melvin’s autobiography. These moments of reimagining further insist on acknowledging how the figure of the child haunts both films, while also serving as a catalyst for creative production. I conclude by discussing how the spectral presence of children in Sweetback and Baadasssss! complicates our understanding of black radical politics, and how the child, both innocent and sexual, realizes the potential of sexual performance for transforming notions of racial identity.

Sweetback opens with a scene of child sex that unsettles, a scene that announces the queer politics of the film. A young Sweetback (Mario) appears in the kitchen of what we later find to be a brothel. The house’s “mother” gives him some food and, after gaining strength from the meal and the maternal stares of the assembled women, he begins working as a towel boy for the prostitutes. His duties entail keeping the women supplied with fresh towels and water during the course of the typical business day. While he is performing in this capacity, one of the women invites him into her room. She strips the boy and pulls him to her, all while the camera records a fleeting glimpse of a young, nude, black body. Eventually sex with the child becomes sex with the adult, as the young Sweetback dissolves to a much older Sweetback (Melvin). Here, the father replaces his son without breaking the temporal frame of a sexual encounter that has seemingly lasted for twenty years. While this scene certainly foregrounds Sweetback’s sexuality, it nevertheless makes for awkward viewing when we know that the father and son have ostensibly shared a common sexual partner right in front of our eyes. While editing techniques allow the child’s and the father’s sex to occur at different times, it nevertheless anchors these temporal frames around the figure of Sweetback. This macho black character exists throughout this filmic time as a character defined by and through his sexuality. A generation later, Baadasssss! reveals the context determining Melvin’s decision to film his son having sex, told through Mario’s performance as his father, thereby obscuring any straightforward readings of character and narrative. [End Page 42]

I examine the uncomfortable sexuality of this scene to consider how the technology of film structures the relationship between father and son. The film imagines Sweetback’s sexual maturation through a dissolve from the young child’s sexualized body to a parallel shot of the child-turned-adult who assumes his role as Sweetback by donning his iconic black hat. That Melvin’s son, Mario, plays the young Sweetback blurs and complicates the already awkward experience of screening sex between a thirteen-year-old boy and a much more experienced woman.2 This scene stages a sexual encounter between an adult and a child carried out through the performance of Mario and Melvin, visually linked through a filmic blending of their scenes. Such juxtaposition forces the viewer to confront not only the overt sexual material in this scene but also its fixation on framing the blackness of its characters within this context. I develop my analysis of this and other scenes with an understanding of how “blackness is queer,” to demonstrate how these films provide transtemporal, and therefore transgenerational, media for linking father and son (Scott 10; original emphasis). For Darieck Scott, blackness exists against normativity and must be surpassed to arrive at a more generative conception of a nation; blackness is typically assigned a position of defeat and humiliation in history, both sexually and physically (4-5). In contrast, Sweetback revels in its staging of black bodies, all while relying on an intimate connection between father and son. In ways that I elucidate below, film-making (via Mario’s metafilmic study of his father’s film, along with the technology of film itself) allows the son to replace, and on some level preempt, the father as the traditional source of sexual experience and knowledge. I term the tangled knot of kinship and aesthetic relations this study outlines “queer Oedipal drag.” Such a term combines, while retaining the independence of, the various theoretical registers that animate my analysis of a revolutionary black film and its subsequent rearticulation thirty-two years later.3

I use the matrix of terms “queer Oedipal drag” throughout this essay to describe a specific form of historical and sexual lingering and replacement that clarifies the relationship between the films. Elizabeth Freeman defines “temporal drag” as the “retrogression, delay, and pull of the past on the present” that culminates in “a kind of temporal transitivity” for the lesbian feminist activists she studies, and who embody and cite the past in their political investment and activism in the present (62-63; original emphasis). While her use of the term describes how activists such as Sharon Hayes perform a “corporeal and sartorial recalcitrance” by wearing clothes and holding protest signs from a bygone era in the present moment, her term nevertheless describes the sense of entanglement these activists have in linking their own political projects to a genealogy of previous generations and movements (61).4 I add “queer Oedipal” to this term and collapse “temporal” into Oedipal to mark the gendered dimension along which Mario replaces and performs as Melvin, even as Melvin’s performance as Sweetback functions as a moment when the father replaces the son. While the linking together of a term used to describe lesbian feminist activism with a filmic character who “made Black male [hetero]sexuality cool” would seem strange bedfellows, I believe this linking can help describe the temporal and sexual dimension in which Baadasssss! embodies and performs a form of drag, or pull, on Sweetback, coded through a relationship between father and son (Wright 71).

Marketing Revolutionary Black Sexuality

The marketing material (Fig. 1) that frames the viewer experience of these films introduces the particular sexual and political valences of Sweetback and Baadasssss! Each poster reflects strategic choices in how it markets the films, while [End Page 43] still retaining a close link between the filmic material and thematic concerns of Sweetback and Baadasssss! that suggests how the figure of the child emerges to lay claim to the father’s creative work. The original marketing poster for Sweetback was the product of Cinemation, a low-budget pornographic film studio, which was one of the only studios willing to distribute Sweetback.6 Thus the poster frames the film’s narrative around some of its most provocative themes: violence and sex. The cover features the iconic shot of Sweetback’s gaze set against a black background.7 Major scenes and images from the film provide a hyperreal blending of the film’s narrative. We see the burning police car that provides Sweetback’s final escape from police custody, along with his raised hands clutching the bonds that become revolutionary weapons when he strikes the cops who beat Moo-Moo. We also see Sweetback’s first and last lovers (from left to right respectively) sharing a frame they never do in the film.8 Here, the artwork performs a “deliberately promiscuous” representation of Sweetback’s sexual history by juxtaposing two of his partners and calling attention to how he figuratively straddles racial boundaries (Allen 215). Before prospective audience members have even bought tickets to the show, they are introduced to icons of Sweetback’s revolutionary politics. He will challenge racial and sexual systems, the poster promises, all while bringing down state-sponsored violence, communicated through the burning police cruiser. The conflation of the sex scenes, though, depicts the marginal space afforded to women within the film, who become a site for exerting the masculine privilege endemic to the “Sweetback style,” marshaled as a response to racial inequality (Knadler 909).

Fig 1. Publicity posters for Sweetback and Baadasssss! Images used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017
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Fig 1.

Publicity posters for Sweetback and Baadasssss! Images used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017

Baadasssss!, in contrast, marks the emergence of the son as a formative and necessary influence on the making of Sweetback. The more conservative visual framing of the film can be attributed in part to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, which no doubt sought to tone down some of its overt sexuality while still maintaining a close connection to Sweetback. This poster uses the same technique of [End Page 44] blended stills used in the film, but includes the subtitle “A Father A Son A Revolution,” to bring the son into the narrative as a central character. The placement of the words in the subtitle reveals how the son functions as the mediating element between the “father,” who cannot reach the “revolution” without passing through the son. In this second poster, we see various shots of Melvin and Mario seated on a motorcycle, watching Sweetback’s premiere, as well as Mario’s actual son, Mandela, as the “angel of inspiration” who haunts Melvin throughout Baadasssss! Whereas the Sweetback poster announces sex and revolutionary violence as the film’s overarching theme, the Baadasssss! poster positions the son, both performed and physical, as a central figure within the story. This poster reminds us that we cannot understand Sweetback, either the film or the character, without first understanding the son of the man who created him, and who then also himself performs as Sweetback’s creator.

Images such as Mario’s performance of Sweetback’s iconic pose also generate questions about the unintended but nevertheless tacit sexual and, on some level, incestual subtext of Mario’s performance in the opening sequence of Sweetback. In many ways, these films demonstrate how Mario preempts and replaces his father on a sexual and performative level. Mario’s performance as the young, sexually active Sweetback underscores Melvin’s extensive sexual performances within the logic of the film. It is the younger Sweetback, after all, who precedes the older Sweetback in the opening credits. Similarly, Mario’s decision to act as his father, especially when his character must confront and insist on the decision to film a young Mario (Khleo Thomas) having sex, confuses the traditional relationship of father and son. The son simply cannot be seen as the innocent product of the experienced father’s sexual knowledge—the sex that produces the child. Instead, the queer Oedipal drag performed by both films refuses to leave the heteronormative family structure alone, and instead dismantles many of the assumptions underlying its descriptive power. The Baadasssss! poster rearranges the constellation of themes used to frame the Sweetback narrative by foregrounding Mario, both the actor and the character, in relation to alternate aspects of the original film. We still get a strong dose of sexuality through the two black women who flank Mario’s recreation of the Sweetback gaze, and a still of Melvin sharing a bed with three sexual partners, one of whom is Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson). However, the radical violence of a burning police car in Sweetback is replaced by an intact version with the haunting presence of Melvin’s angel of inspiration sitting on the hood, which dramatizes a process of Oedipal replacement that operates as an unspoken theme for the film. Baadasssss!’s status as a biopic also allows Mario to contextualize his father’s film by placing the narrative of father and son at the center of the creation of Sweetback, communicated here through the central placement of the son, both visually and thematically, on the poster. This poster demonstrates how Mario replaces his father by performing as Melvin, who performs as Sweetback, and recreating the same iconographic gaze, while also altering the nature of this narrative by insisting on the conspicuous presence of Van Peebles sons (both the actual and performed Mario as well as Mario’s own son Mandela). Such a presence refracts the sexual and political representation contained in the Sweetback poster, and forces attention on the enduring presence of the sexual black child as a mediating factor in the production of macho black sexuality.

Protecting the Sexual (Black) Child

Iwant that we consider the temporal status of sexualized children, especially the black child who has sex on screen. We return, then, to young Sweetback and his [End Page 45] sexual initiation. While sitting in the brothel, he captures the gaze of nearly every woman there. According to the revolutionary Huey P. Newton, these women look longingly into the futurity Lee Edelman would later read onto the figural child, as if through him the women can transcend their present state and live only for Sweetback (Newton 115; Edelman 11). He is the child who must be nurtured by the weary but smiling prostitutes who see him as their future liberator (Newton 115). In this moment, Melvin, operating as the film’s director, presents us with the very thing Edelman would come to loathe thirty-three years later, a child who carries the hopes and dreams of the adult world.9 Yet we cannot see this child as completely innocent; his innocence already carries with it a certain sense of “strangeness.” Kathryn Bond Stockton argues that innocent children are always strange because their innocence is predicated on an experience society does not acknowledge (31). We get a taste of this experience in the stills that precede young Sweetback’s debut. We see a shot of the older Sweetback turning from his pursuers with a dedication “to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.”10 Melvin visually juxtaposes the experience of the mature Sweetback with the supposed innocence of his childhood as an orphan. The anticipation of Sweetback’s eventual escape forces the audience to read this childhood as already experienced in the sense that he will not remain innocent. We know that he will eventually flee from violent pursuers and in this moment we already see the experienced man the child becomes, allowing this reading to overlap with our understanding of his supposedly innocent childhood.11

Of course, the most unsettling moment in the film, both sexually and temporally, is young Sweetback’s sex. With the awkwardness you might expect of a thirteen-year-old in such a situation, Mario, performing as Sweetback, lays down on the woman as she tells him to “move,” instead of remaining rigid since “you ain’t at the photographer’s.” Robert Reid-Pharr notes how this line ironically comments on the child’s performance (156). He is, after all, getting his picture taken through the camera his father would have been directing. The two begin having sex while the opening credits hover over freeze frames of the woman’s orgasm, which then take a temporally jarring turn when the film editing allows time to pass and the older Sweetback (Melvin) replaces the younger Sweetback (Mario). In the pauses that allow father to replace son, we see a sexualized black child. Young Sweetback’s innocence leaves as this sexual encounter allows him to become a future revolutionary. Here, we see a child that represents both a delicate futurity that needs to be protected as well as the radical political potential of screening child sex. In this moment, the figural child as an experienced sexual body inaugurates the radical politics of the film, while also implying heteronormative futurity through his status as both eventual adult and symbol for black liberation.

This scene asks its viewers to think about the revolutionary politics of screening child sex, which was something Newton thought of when he first saw Sweetback as a sexualized boy and man.12 He wrote perhaps the most extensive contemporary analysis of the film following its 1971 premiere, making it required viewing for Black Panthers throughout the country.13 He describes how Melvin “knew [children] would understand it. … like ‘Moo-Moo,’ … they are our future” (114). When Newton conflates the overt revolutionary figure of Moo-Moo with the figure of young Sweetback, he makes the child both a revolutionary and the vessel for the politics of a revolutionary film. Thus a moment of possible child pornography becomes “a cultural duty” to “a certain youth audience” that used the film to “better define their opposition to the White multi-national overlord” (Hartmann 391). For Newton, revolution is about youth, about the future generation taking up the struggle for liberation and freedom. But what can these nameless children understand about the awkward sex between young Sweetback and the older, more experienced, prostitute? To his credit, Newton addresses gaps in age and experience: for him, Sweetback’s sex, as both child and adult, ritualizes and sanctifies the baptism of the [End Page 46] liberator into manhood and his role as hero for the black community (116). He cites the religious music that plays in the background and the lack of a monetary exchange as evidence of the spiritual nature of this experience (118). According to this reading, sex represents a form of religious and political conversion; it matures Sweetback and allows him to gain the political consciousness necessary for him to take his place as revolutionary figure.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Sweetback’s sex, though, is that it immediately causes discomfort for the film’s audience. In Baadasssss!, Melvin must convince his personal assistant that the graphic sexuality of the film does not commodify women, but instead seeks to reveal black female sexuality (via nude black female bodies) as revolutionary. His argument casts all the taboos transgressed by the film as generative moments of revolution and liberation. Ostensibly this also describes Melvin’s directorial decision to film his own son having sex, because the very taboo nature of the scene breaks down racial and sexual barriers. In this argument, the nude black body, emblematized by both the child and the prostitute, can now be shown in a positive light instead of as the object of sexual desire and consumption. Conversely, Mikel Koven’s survey of the genre, Blaxploitation Films, represents a typical critical response to the film, wherein this very sexuality obscures the potential revolution. While Koven does not completely ignore the film’s politics, he does acknowledge that if one can get past the graphic sexual material, Sweetback “is one of the most radical films made in the United States” (21). The film certainly earns such acclaim for featuring a black hero who reciprocates the racist violence of police officers, and who also survives the ordeal of escaping his assailants. In a similar fashion, Courtney Bates outlines how Sweetback combines the traditional black folklore figures of the trickster and the “badman” to create a revolutionary signifier in Sweetback who speaks to mainstream audiences (175). Yet, before we can cheer on the revolutionary Sweetback, we must confront the awkward, inexperienced, and naked Sweetback.

By causing discomfort and embodying the awkwardness of a child’s sexual encounter, this performance uses the figural child to transgress another layer of racial taboo: a black child in need of shelter. Kathryn Bond Stockton argues that the typical “child,” as both metaphoric and rhetorical figure, denotes a white, middle-class upbringing (31). These are the children in need of society’s protection, as if their whiteness must remain as pure and unmolested as their physical bodies. Instead, Sweetback depicts a child both black and poor, who must take shelter in the furthest thing from the normative, nuclear, white family: a black brothel. While Melvin certainly uses the opening sequence to demonstrate Sweetback’s sexual prowess, the figural child as innocent and in need of protection immediately breaks the audience from its viewing experience. Like Koven, we are uncomfortable watching a thirteen-year-old naked body on screen. It is through this feeling that Melvin initiates us into another dimension of his radical politics; just as the sex we watch initiates and baptizes young Sweetback into his revolutionary destiny, the racial privilege that protects the white child’s innocence here extends to the black child and renders his blackness visible in ways that confront the normative figure of the child.14 If we are disgusted and appalled by the sexuality of the child, then perhaps that is the point: our very disgust performs a radical transference of privilege to the black child who must be protected from the sexual maturity and experience required by his father.15

Baadasssss! then stages the tension of Melvin’s decision to film his son in ways that further complicate how these films imagine the figural child. Melvin’s sexual partner, Sandra (Nia Long), along with virtually the entire crew, expresses concern for the physical and psychic effects of using young Mario in the sex scene. The two assume the gendered roles of mother and father, with Melvin citing young Mario’s strength as evidence that his son is ready for the experience in opposition to Sandra’s role as a surrogate mother seeking to protect her children from the world’s [End Page 47] cruelties. Melvin concludes the discussion by arguing, “I know my own kid better than he know himself.”16 This statement casts the father as the source of the child’s necessary maturation and growth, even as this growth requires the loss of the child’s innocence through a staged sexual experience. While this demonstrates the discreet temporalities separating Mario’s sexual encounter from Melvin’s, it nevertheless emphasizes the Oedipal replacement and sexual politics of Baadasssss! The father here invalidates claims for the child’s protection, while also ironically replacing the figurative father through Mario’s performance as his own father. In this scene, Melvin knows that Mario is ready for such an act because Mario has already undergone this experience when he performed as Sweetback.

As a director, Mario uses his Oedipal performance to dramatize the position of a black father who insists that his young son no longer requires the coddling of adults, and that the son no longer needs the influence of the mother, tacitly understood here as an affront to his development as a man. The young Mario is uncomfortable and unsure about the scripted sexual encounter, even as Melvin insists that he is ready and strong enough to perform as the sexual stud, Sweetback. The central tension of young Mario’s performance, though, hinges on his Afro, which must be mangled and cut to resemble the disheveled young Sweetback. During her fight with Melvin, Sandra pleads that young Mario should at least be able to keep his Afro, framing young Mario’s hair as a symbol of his racial, masculine, and political identity. Her argument implies that to shave and disfigure his hair is to mutilate the man the child will become.17 Young Mario’s hair also symbolizes his status as a figural child in that it represents the child’s innocence, which is sacrificed in order to perform and produce Sweetback’s sexuality. Even as the father points out that the hair will grow back, we mourn the child’s Afro as a manifestation of his innocence and also of his normative progression into heterosexual masculinity. His hair must be protected at all costs, even as the child’s body remains unprotected and made to perform sexually. The fight over young Mario’s Afro is not really a fight over hair at all, but a struggle to claim protection for a black child whose innocence transcends racial lines. Through the fight over hair, the figural child persists across these racial and gender boundaries and becomes the thing that must be sheltered from experience.

Thus Sweetback’s staging of child sex revolutionizes the figural child, even as it relies on normative readings of the child as innocent. But it is precisely this insistence on the innocence of the black child that makes Sweetback so radical. The affective response to seeing a black child having sex emphasizes the child’s claim to protection. Mario’s performance as his father, especially in talking about his own childhood experiences in Baadasssss!, heightens sympathy for the young black child while reorienting this concern to the child’s hair. The Oedipal struggle between father and son, and the gendered polarity of mother and father, work across both films and call attention to how Mario replaces his father through performance, even as this performance returns to the child. Thus temporality and the time-traveling potential of a son-turned-filmmaker-and-actor structure and dramatize the tension between the “innocent” child and the experienced father. These films work through the tension of father and son by performing an Oedipal struggle over the figure of the child and by foregrounding this child as the futurity the present must protect.

Temporal Drag and Radical Queer Filming

A temporal loop of lingering in the past sutures the narratives of Sweetback and Baadasssss!, a process that endlessly repeats the moment of Melvin’s creative inspiration, mediating this process through the figure of the child. Within this looping temporality, the beginning of Baadasssss! serves as the ending of Sweetback, linking [End Page 48] the filmic projects of father and son in an Oedipal loop of performance and adaptation. Yet the performance of the son-as-father here disrupts the normative temporal logic of the child’s progression into adulthood, instead offering a queer vision of history communicated through the process of filmmaking. Elizabeth Freeman offers the concept of “temporal drag” to describe the ways in which historical moments erupt and queer the present. Past and present collide in the moments she cites as well as in the interaction between Sweetback and Baadasssss!, and it is in these moments that we see how historiography replicates itself through the repetition and citation of previous historical moments. The “recalcitrance” of history, its refusal to conform to the linear narrative it seemingly references, shapes Freeman’s analysis of queerness as an anachronism, as something inherently disjointed and out of place compared with normative society and culture (61).18

Read within this theoretical frame, the body of the sexualized black child in these two films reminds the present of its past and future. Stockton argues that the figure of the child already assumes an aura of “cloudiness and ghostliness,” which “surround[s] children as figures in time” (2). For her, children connote the passage of time via the generational gaps spanned by sexual reproduction, and the undoing of linear notions of temporal progression. Instead, she offers “sideways growth” as a term with which to describe the queer trajectories enacted by children and their nonnormative experience of time (13). Within this conceptualization, the child must always negotiate the queer embodiments of a profound ignorance of normative notions of gender, sex and sexuality. In ways that undercut the assumptions that structure so-called adult time, the adult occupies a time forever defined against the “innocence” of childhood.19 For her, the queer child grows sideways in response to the vertical axis of corporeal growth and the forward axis of temporal growth. This is a child who “delays” and lingers instead of growing forward and up. According to Stockton, children exist in an alternative temporal frame, one that normativity disciplines and polices or else ignores altogether (31).

In a similar way, the temporal drag performed by Mario’s opening sequence in Baadasssss! produces an Oedipal reframing of Melvin’s Sweetback. In this scene, Stockton’s “figure of the child” mediates the Oedipal replacement of the father, thereby rearranging and queering the work of filmic adaptation.20 Baadasssss! opens with a reflection on Melvin as a revolutionary filmmaker when Mandela, Mario’s son, sings the iconic melody of Sweetback’s theme, “you bled my momma,” as the child’s voice blends with adults chanting “Hell no we won’t go.” Even before Mario takes us on a visual tour of 1970s’ politics, the voices of the child and nameless activists perform a temporal drag on the audience. We cannot escape or ignore the historical mediation that Mario uses to outline his reframing of Sweetback. Images of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy flash onscreen, followed by the gunshots that register their assassinations. Immediately the film exists in a time of political upheaval and revolution framed by the narration of Big T (Terry Crews), the militant boom operator for Sweetback. Here, the film frames the emergence and inspiration for Sweetback within the visual and historical context of the film’s production, thereby replacing Melvin, in more ways than one, and offering a temporally disjointed reading of Sweetback. This opening sequence also performs a temporal drag that references Sweetback as cultural material even as the film ostensibly narrates the formation and production of that very film while footage from the original Sweetback blends with a montage of desert landscapes, political footage, and the urban decay of 1970s’ Los Angeles.

Over all of this, Mandela’s voice echoes and brings into existence the images used to transport us to the 1970s. This voiceover insists on the presence of the child as mediation for Sweetback by linking the film to these representations of its political context. Just as the media posters mentioned above mark the emergence of the father and son as constitutive elements of the making of Sweetback, so too does [End Page 49] Mario’s opening sequence stage the child as a constitutive element of the making of the film. It is as if Mandela’s voice brings into existence a visual and political framework that orients our viewing of the film. This opening sequence stands in stark contrast to the queer process of inspiration that Melvin offers in his recollection of the film. The original inspiration for Sweetback, as Melvin tells it anyway, came from masturbation. He experimented with what he describes as a “crash method,” where masturbation replaces the “few days or weeks” of “hibernation” that he typically uses to clear his mind and focus on his next creative project. Melvin frames this anecdote within another temporality, the “time bind” of studio expectations, linking his sexual action to the demands of capitalist consumption epitomized by Hollywood (Sweetback 3).

Baadasssss! replaces Melvin’s masturbation with a different form of ejaculation: speech. The use of testimonials by the various principal characters in the film provides these characters with a voice that amplifies the historical context for the film. In the commentary to Baadasssss!, Melvin compliments how Mario uses these testimonials to provide texture and tension throughout the contentious moments of the film. Yet these testimonials blur the film’s genre: are we watching a documentary? A biopic? A docudrama? A mockumentary?21 Although most scholarly accounts settle on biopic, these interviews already mark the queer relationship between Baadasssss! and Sweetback. The Baadasssss! testimonials bring the supporting cast into the foreground, even as Melvin serves as the primary subject of the film. Nevertheless, Big T claims, “it was a war going on,” while Tommy David (Ralph Martin), the chief sound engineer, remarks that “Vietnam was being shoved down our throats,” and Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson), the quasi-producer and self-titled “money man” for the film, offers the epigram “good things … do not come … to those who wait.” Here, the voices of 1970s’ black militancy (Big T), disillusioned white liberalism (Tommy David), and stoned hippie culture (Bill Harris) describe multiple dimensions of “war” for U. S. social and political orders. Before Melvin even enters the frame, the testimonials dictate the terms for the consumption of Sweetback. Political history overlaps with and comments on Sweetback’s context, while these references prove necessary to Baadasssss!’s 2003 audience, for whom the 1970s exist as a distant memory or preserved historical construction, if at all.

In this way, Baadasssss!’s opening sequence activates the formal characteristics of the biopic to provide a historical context for his father’s inspiration for Sweetback. George Custen’s field-defining Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History charts the typical characteristics of the genre. He describes how “almost every biopic opens with title cards that place the piece in context or with a voice-narration” that establishes context and historical fidelity (51). Baadasssss! fulfills this generic requirement through the civil rights-era footage, while also challenging the boundaries of that genre to convey a “true portrait” of its subject, Melvin Van Peebles. For instance, Dennis Bingham’s extension of Custen’s analysis uses Milos Forman’s 1999 Man on the Moon as a case study in the subversion of the genre and the tradition of the “Great Man” narrative (7). In this film, the late comedian Andy Kaufman (played by Jim Carrey) immediately seems to break character and speak to the audience directly, all while calling attention to the multiple levels of performance that refuse an authentic “Andy” within or underneath them all. Similarly, Baadasssss! is a biopic only insofar as it narrates the life of Melvin Van Peebles and relates his “importance in the world” (Bingham 10). Mario’s decision to perform as Melvin, an actor so intimately tied to the actions depicted by the film, blurs and challenges the generic boundaries of a biopic. We are forced to question whether the film concerns itself primarily with the story of the father or that of the son. Perhaps both? Mario’s performance constantly reminds audience members that the figural presence of the child, Mario both on and off camera, filters their experience of [End Page 50] Melvin despite the uncanny resemblance between the two.22 But we must keep in mind that this is a film about “A Father A Son A Revolution.”

The most dramatic example of Mario’s replacement of his father, however, occurs through the setting of the opening sequence. The opening testimonials fade to a cut of Melvin riding a motorcycle in a desert, with the young Mario riding in the back. We see father and son embarking on a “camping trip,” although they lack the traditional gear of a sleeping bag, or even a tent. After stopping and setting up the meager camp, an obviously bored Mario searches for his father, who has wandered into the underbrush and has lain on the ground to envision his follow-up to the successful comedy Watermelon Man.23 Calls of “Melvin” go unanswered as cuts of Sweetback’s escape (in the original film) and a montage of more stock civil-rights imagery plays across the screen. Melvin pitches the basic plot for Sweetback to Mario: “street brother, average hustler-turned-revolutionary.” His response to his father’s film idea—“Who’s gonna wanna see that? Black guys always die at the end”—provides the context through which Melvin must articulate his radical film aesthetic. While Baadasssss! maintains the desert as the site for Melvin’s inspiration, the presence of his child, both biological (Mario) and fictional (Khleo), disrupts the narrative of Melvin’s “semen-shock” approach.

Mario’s presence in the otherwise intimate moment of masturbation-turned-inspiration casts Stockton’s figure of the child as antithetical to the father’s auto-eroticism. Mario becomes the audience for Melvin’s inspiration, signifying on Mario’s role as the filmic inheritor of Melvin’s story. The child takes up the story of the father in two contexts, both as its first audience and then later as a director/actor/producer who later tells the story of the making of Sweetback, all while playing the role of the father. Here, the child represents an endlessly repeating “futurity of reproduction and heteronormativitity,” while also outlining “the adulthood against which [the child] must be defined” (Edelman 4; Stockton 31). The child reminds the father of the economies of cultural consumption that underwrite the prevailing visions of black filmic characters Melvin seeks to dismantle. Thus young Mario joins the chorus of other voices telling Melvin to play the studio’s game, make another comedy, and, more important, avoid direct political statements. In an ironic twist of directorial choice, Mario replaces what would have been a moment of masturbation with the more normative father/son dynamic, only to use this dynamic to dramatize the very antinormativity his father’s project entails, this time along political and cultural lines. The figure of the child thus alters the registers of Melvin’s critique and prioritizes the political over the sexual.

Thus the spectral image of the child haunts and inhabits the desert of Melvin’s inspiration while also condoning Mario’s ability to mediate and reference the looping temporality that binds Sweetback to Baadasssss! and links father to son (Fig. 2). Sweetback concludes with the famous warning, “A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…” (Fig. 3), which leaves his narrative unfulfilled and incomplete as the ellipsis punctuates the indeterminacy of Sweetback’s fate. The final still from Sweetback does not feature the titular protagonist at all, only text over the otherwise empty landscape of the desert. This is the landscape that offers Sweetback an escape and thereby the realization of his status as revolutionary black radical. The desert also already realizes the haunting presence of the present progressive verb tense as the final warning rests over this barren landscape. The “is coming” signals Sweetback’s return as ongoing, although the film uses his escape as a conclusion and resolution of dramatic tension. Like that of Ellison’s invisible man, Sweetback’s retreat from society only marks his continued connection to the present.24 For both of these protagonists, language signifies a relationship to society and the present, the “lower frequencies” of “speaking” replaced by the warning of the “baadasssss nigger”’s return from his desert sanctuary. Baadasssss! takes up this project, as it uses the desert setting of Sweetback’s escape as the stage for Mario’s return to the work of his father. [End Page 51]

Fig 2. Baadasssss!’s scene of Melvin’s inspiration. The child haunting Melvin. Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017
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Fig 2.

Baadasssss!’s scene of Melvin’s inspiration. The child haunting Melvin.

Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017

Fig 3. Sweetback’s conclusion. The escape and prophesized return of the revolutionary. Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017
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Fig 3.

Sweetback’s conclusion. The escape and prophesized return of the revolutionary.

Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017

[End Page 52]

Read in this light, Baadasssss!’s opening desert sequence further routes Sweetback through the figural child, understood here through the director’s choice of location. The desert setting demonstrates the temporal links between the beginning and ending of Sweetback and Baadasssss! and marks the return of the “baadasssss nigger,” this time through Mario’s performance as Melvin. If we screen Sweetback and Baadasssss! consecutively, the landscape serves as something of a time machine, transporting us from the 1970s of Sweetback to the 2000s of Baadasssss!, even as this process attempts to bring us back to the 1970s through visual references to the civil rights era. This sequence stages Baadasssss! and Mario’s opening performance in a way that continues his father’s narrative, even while this continuation is really a movement to the prehistory of Sweetback. As queer Oedipal drag, Baadasssss! both continues and replaces Sweetback by insisting that the son inherit the father’s work. In essence, Mario’s choice of setting demonstrates his reading of Melvin’s written version of Sweetback and the latter’s “semen-shock” approach, while also attempting to replace his father’s story. In this way, Baadasssss! stages the events of Sweetback (both written and film versions) to insist that the child haunts and inhabits the world of the parent. As a meditation on the figure of the child, the film charts the futurity of Edelman’s child while also revealing the queer ways in which this child disrupts and replaces the world of the adult.

Ending with a Beginning: the “Queer Time” that “Binds” Sweetback and Baadasssss!

In Baadasssss!, Mario challenges the temporality of the traditional family structure as he replaces and embodies his father. His creative production offers the opportunity for the son to complete the Oedipal replacement of the father initiated at the beginning of Sweetback. He queers the relationship between father and son, even as physical, heterosexual reproduction provides for Mario’s existence in the first place. Mario’s contention that he felt like his “father’s protector, played out through the role of the son,” included in the opening epigraph, encapsulates the nonnormative family structure performed in both films. The child precedes and provides the sex that produces the father in Sweetback while Baadasssss! allows the son to play the father and thereby return to the moment when he performs this temporal rupture. While Baadasssss! realizes the reproductive futurity of the figural child, this futurity has already been defined by a queer generational relationship. Mario had sex with a woman while his father watched through the lens of a camera, which is an unsettling moment that haunts and lingers in both films.

I conclude with a meditation on the child as a spectral figure, as a body that exists as a phantasm, since children haunt both films. Mario haunts Sweetback in his cameo appearance as both the young Sweetback and then as one of two children who are the frontline of Sweetback’s escape from the police (Fig. 4). They distract the police tasked with recovering the now-outlaw Sweetback. Similarly, Mario’s own children, Marley and Maya, play trick-or-treaters in a brief scene in Baadasssss!, and another son, Mandela, inspires Melvin as a spectral angel and the “faces Norman Rockwell never painted,” which he hopes to capture in Sweetback. The figural child appears in both films as an inspiration for political revolution. In Sweetback, the ghostly presence of children precedes the much larger mob that rallies around Sweetback’s revolutionary stand against the police, which ultimately results in the iconic burning police cruiser. For both films the child haunts and reminds the protagonist of his political destiny, a destiny made possible only by filling the void represented by the child’s liminal presence: a united black community on the one hand, a complex representation of black life on the other. [End Page 53]

Fig 4. Mario and his sister Megan performing as children in Sweetback. Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017
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Fig 4.

Mario and his sister Megan performing as children in Sweetback.

Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017

Fig 5. Mario’s son Mandela as the “angel of inspiration” in Baadasssss! Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017
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Fig 5.

Mario’s son Mandela as the “angel of inspiration” in Baadasssss!

Image used courtesy of Mario Van Peebles. ©2017

[End Page 54]

The queer Oedipal drag of this figurative child functions as a structuring matrix for the development of black radical politics. The repetitive presence of the spectral child demonstrates how the child remains a central figure for mediating the narratives of both films. Mario haunts Sweetback to signal how its protagonist moves from the performance of black macho heterosexuality to the liberation of political revolt. The young Sweetback “conquers” a sexual partner who is unavailable to the older Sweetback until the male figural child gains his sexual liberation, on both a narrative and a physical level. Mario’s second appearance then dramatizes Sweetback’s maturation and reveals how the child enacts the futurity Huey P. Newton ascribes to black children. Thus Mario’s performance provides a future for the revolution initiated by the father’s resistance. Similarly, Mandela haunts Mario’s performance as Melvin to remind him of the need for images of blackness that reject demeaning stereotypes (Fig. 5). In this way, Mandela replicates Mario’s role as the signpost for the father’s revolution in that both Mandela and Mario mark the development of Melvin, both the filmmaker and film character. The figure of the child echoes and reverberates throughout both films; it inhabits, embodies, precedes, and inspires the adult world by queering linear time and normative family structures.

Both Sweetback and Baadasssss! therefore require a queer reading of the nature of film and its relation to staging time because both realize the potential for film to disrupt linear time, even as such notions are already rendered suspect by the very nature of film editing. These films queer time and queer the family, revealing the tangled negotiations of time and space that subtend the presence of a child in an adult context. In both films, the child always seems out of place, always queered by experience, even as this experience can precede the experience of the parent. Thus a temporally disjointed and sexualized child inhabits and links the work of a father and the work of his son, revealing how the son’s work seeks to replace the father’s. Mario’s queer Oedipal drag upsets a simple understanding of the relationship between Sweetback and Baadasssss!, but instead of thinking of the latter as a straightforward biopic telling the story of the former, his Oedipal replacement and queered embodiment of his father’s character’s sexual activities challenge and reimagine linear time. Such a tangled temporality foregrounds the revolutionary role of the child as the sexually, politically, and artistically active figure who announces and continues Sweetback’s revolution. Mario is both the figurative child of the future and the mediating element who provides a catalyst for the emergence of his father, the revolutionary. By first performing as young Sweetback, and then later performing as his father, who both creates and acts as Sweetback, Mario completes a temporal loop that circulates the child, both figural and literal, as a vessel of black masculine revolutionary politics.

Adam Coombs

Adam Coombs is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, where he is completing a dissertation that interrogates the conversion of entrepreneurial narratives, gender, and respectability politics in the early decades of the twentieth century to form “entrepreneurial uplift” as an operative narrative mode for framing the political stakes of black-owned businesses.


I would like to acknowledge and thank the people who have contributed so much to the direction and final state of this essay. I thank anonymous reviewers at African American Review, whose guidance and thoughtful suggestions contributed in important ways to the form and content of this article. Scott Herring designed the course that inspired the initial form for these thoughts, and provided helpful advice, especially in the latter stages of revision. Shane Vogel’s guiding criticism and steady feedback helped transform my inchoate drafts into a much more coherent form. My wife, Karen Coombs, provided the helpful emotional support that inspires me each and every day. I thank you all.

1. In Wlodarz’s filmic analysis, the appearance of “militant queens” in Sweetback as well as the gay supporting character Ford Malotte in Friday Foster (1975) indicate how macho black masculinity enforces gender and sexual boundaries even as these films blur and complicate the divisions separating these concepts (11; 12).

2. Linda Williams, in Screening Sex (Durham: Duke UP, 2008), offers an extended reading of the affective registers involved when one views this scene, among other scenes with sexualized content she discusses. [End Page 55]

3. Alternately, Allen offers the construction “black/queer/diaspora” to argue that “queer” “can be seen to conjoin the terms on either side or to push them apart, toward sharper individual focus.” For Allen, “both black and queer exert pressure on diaspora, just as black leans to queer—perhaps toward something else, or the conjuncture to come” (217).

4. Her analysis of Sharon Hayes centers on Hayes’s performance in her project In the Near Future, which features Hayes standing outside of recent activist-led talks or meetings with placards featuring slogans and mottos generally from 1960s’ and ’70s’ political movements. Her theory of temporal drag builds on Judith Butler’s concept of “repetition with a difference,” described in Gender Trouble, itself a form of signifyin(g) invested in the intersection of the past and present.

5. The cover art and stills reproduced here and throughout this article are used with the generous permission granted by Mario Van Peebles. Any further reproduction or published use of these images requires this same permission.

6. Justin Wyatt notes how Cinemation’s decision to distribute Sweetback coincided with the company’s strategic shift from “sexploitation” films into other marginalized material. Sweetback, therefore, provided an important linking of sexploitation and the budding interest in blaxploitation films of the decade. See Wyatt, “Selling ‘Atrocious Sexual Behavior’: Revisiting Sexualities in the Marketplace for Adult Film of the 1960s,” in Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s, Hilary Radner and Moya Luckett, eds. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999), 122.

7. Amy Abugo Ongiri points out how, for much of the film, Sweetback’s lack of physical or facial expression, or even speech, demonstrates that he is a spectator to the events in the film, while also gesturing toward an inclusive identification with the black community, the ostensible star of the film. See Ongiri, Spectacular Blackness: The Cultural Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black Aesthetic (Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2010), 179.

8. The first woman is the unnamed prostitute who initiates Sweetback’s maturity into his sexuality. The second woman is Big Sadie, the white female leader of a biker gang that Sweetback and Moo-Moo come across during their escape. Instead of fighting, Sweetback uses sex as a weapon to gain his and Moo-Moo’s freedom.

9. Edelman outlines how the figural child becomes a political and moral imperative to limit the freedoms of adults because the child provides a reason to sanitize the world of any adult pleasures (15).

10. The film also opens with a “traditional prologue of the dark ages” that defends the fidelity of the following work. Reid-Pharr reads this homage as problematic for its attempt to claim a “true” black identity that the film cannot support (160).

11. Here, I am using Halberstam’s understanding of “queer” as an expansive term that incorporates all that resists normativity, especially the normativity of childhood.

12. The pornographic nature of the film cannot be ignored since its very sexual nature allowed Melvin to pitch it as a smut film to avoid Hollywood unions that would not allow him to hire the diverse crew of “third-world people” he wanted working on his film (Baadasssss!).

13. Hartmann describes how Melvin sought to make the film “reviewer-proof” through underground marketing tactics, which were then amplified when Newton devoted an entire issue of the Panther newspaper to the film (391).

14. Lury offers a cogent analysis of the implications of children’s onscreen performances. She calls attention to the even greater invisibility of the black female child whom, she argues, has been effaced by “dirty white girls” (54).

15. This line of argument can take us easily into a discussion of the need to criticize black fathers as reflecting a larger cultural and social prejudice. I want to delay that turn, to take Melvin at his word, and to read Sweetback’s sex as revolutionary.

16. Just prior to this statement, Melvin recounts his (his father’s) childhood selling discarded clothes from his father’s tailor shop, and how he learned “survival strategies” such as giving free clothes to gangsters to buy protection from bullies. In the third section, I further explore the haunting presence of the Van Peebles family tree in such moments across both films.

17. In his pathbreaking essay “Black Hair/Style Politics,” Mercer seeks to “de-psychologize” cultural analyses of black hairstyles, although he acknowledges the important role that Afros played as representations of the individual’s rejection of artificial hair treatments and the embrace of a link between Africans and the natural world coded into the style’s name (34).

18. Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place inaugurated scholarly interest in the concept of “queer time” and expanded queerness as a generative concept for describing non/antinormative ways of being in and outside of the world.

19. Stockton deconstructs the very definition of childhood innocence, arguing instead that the child has always been queer, always been sexual, in ways that the normative adult cannot, or chooses not to, [End Page 56] acknowledge. She uses Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as a touchstone for framing how worldly experience always already queers and refutes the child’s innocence.

20. Stockton borrows the concept of the “figure of the child” from Lee Edelman’s polemic No Future, whose concept of futurity resonates with this section as I discuss how Mario replaces the queer present of his father.

21. In my own screening of a 2003 film in 2017, the presence of Rainn Wilson (“Dwight” on the popular NBC sitcom/mockumentary and American remake of the British comedy The Office) evokes for current audiences the now-familiar filming technique of recording characters’ real-time reactions to events. The popularity of The Office likely means that it helps to determine future consumption of Baadasssss!

22. As part of a question-and-answer session for American Cinematheque contained in the DVD version of Baadasssss!, Melvin responds to a question about his feeling of “history re-writing itself” when seeing his son play him on film. He describes how his profession as film editor, a role with which he identifies in preference to that of director or producer, creates a distance between himself and any particular film. Through this distance, he remarks on the ability to enjoy the technical aspects of the film without allowing his personal investment in the filmed events to cloud this experience.

23. Watermelon Man (1970) tells the story of a bigoted white insurance salesman who wakes up to find that he has become a black man overnight. Godfrey Cambridge played the lead, performing in “whiteface” during scenes when his character was white.

24. The ending of Invisible Man likewise concludes with the invisible man’s implied return to society and the need to “come up for breath” (580). Joi Carr argues that Sweetback signifies on Ellison’s novel through a brief shot of the fugitive Sweetback disappearing to the safety of a manhole, much in the way that the invisible man falls into a sewer. See Carr, “‘Triumph’ in the ‘Get Away’: Van Peebles’ Sweetback and Ellison’s Invisible Man,” 37th Annual National Council for Black Studies Conference, Indianapolis, IN, 14 Mar. 2013.

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———No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son’s Own Song of Working Together. New York: Fireside, 1990.
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