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Criterion’s Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films is the Story of a Cinematic Legend | TV/Streaming

When I heard the news about the icon’s death, I pressed pause on an interview between Mario and film critic Elvis Mitchell, and when I returned from the aftershock of the news, I continued watching, listening to Mario speak about how much his father meant to him as a filmmaker, mentor, and dad. It’s then I realized that this excellent box set, which charts the life of a generational talent who ushered in a new cinema, a new genre, Blaxploitation, and altered the perception of the impact a Black-made film could make, financially and artistically, was an unintentional eulogy given by a son to his father. Seen through the lens of Mario, this touching tribute to Van Peebles is an affecting, comprehensive greatest hits that tells the full story of a cinematic legend. Film by film: 

“The Story of a Three-Day Pass”

If one watches the three Van Peebles shorts included on the box set, they’ll get a sense of the influences that fed into his debut feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.” His early work moved with the energy of Oscar Micheaux, John Cassavetes, and the French New Wave. Those schools informed his visual vocabulary. But even earlier than that, his three-and-a-half years in the Air Force provided the impetus for his jump to features. 

In 1967, Van Peebles adapted “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” from his own French-written novel La Permission. Here, Turner (Harry Baird), an officer in the army stationed in France, is promoted and given leave. Once away at a bar, he meets a French woman named Miriam (Nicole Berger), falls for her, and risks his new rank to be with her. Often speaking to his reflection in the mirror, Turner wonders if he’s an Uncle Tom, a Black man wanting to please his white superiors. He also questions the definitions of Blackness. In a gorgeous bar scene, Van Peebles uses a double dolly, which would become Spike Lee’s signature shot two decades later, to express the interiority of Turner: he believes a Black man should be the personification of cool. But Turner only wins over Miriam by being himself, not just monolithic. The film is a powerful romance, demonstrating the first interests Van Peebles took in stories centering identity. 

“Watermelon Man”

If “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” covered Black identity subtly, then “Watermelon Man,” his 1970 sophomore follow-up, says the quiet part loudly. When Columbia Pictures first approached the director about the film, screenwriter Herman Raucher envisioned the premise as a Black man waking up as a white man. Van Peebles flipped that Kafkaesque idea: he wanted a white man who wakes up, one morning, as a Black guy. 

In this edgy, yet still painfully relevant film, comedian Godfrey Cambridge plays the unlikable Jeff Gerber, a racist and sexist father living in a middle-class suburb. His co-workers at the insurance agency loathe him. His horny wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) is undersexed by him. His two children think his routine of racing with the bus every morning on foot is weird too. Normally, Jeff would front a television family sitcom, but here, he’s totally unsympathetic. Van Peebles uses Jeff’s sudden turn to inspect the various microaggressions, systematic obstacles, and dangers that Black folks face, and the varied ways white people are ignorant to those travails. As with “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” the director utilizes jump cuts, fourth-wall breaks, and freeze frames with a visual vocabulary that would form the very basis of Blaxploitation.  

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