Filmmaker, musician, and actor Melvin Van Peebles, whose career on the big screen and in music made him an influential voice and trailblazer in black cinema, has passed away. News of his death comes from a variety of sources with The Criterion Collection (who will premiere an all-new box set of his movies soon) expressing their sympathies about his passing. Melvin's son, filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, also released a statement, writing: "Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer's mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people."
Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1931, Van Peebles was a cultural force. Throughout his career he would go on to write novels, direct feature films, and release albums across his decades-long career. Despite not being his first film, Van Peebles' 1971 feature film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song would be one of the titles that put him on the map as a creator and likely his most influential work. Written, directed, starring, and producing the soundtrack, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song would become one of the first examples of the blaxploitation subgenre in film (released months before Shaft). Sweet Sweetback was selected just last year by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
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. pic.twitter.com/HpciXXVoYo— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) September 22, 2021
"In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music," Criterion Collection wrote in a statement. "His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films next week; and a revival of his play Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year."
Van Peebles' film career crossed all boundaries and dabbled in all genres including Watermelon Man, a race-bending comedy from Columbia Pictures, musicals like Don't Play Us Cheap, and dramas like Gang in Blue. He could continue to work with Sweet Sweetback however, writing a novel adaptation released at the time it premiered but also Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: The Musical back in 2008.