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Melvin Van Peebles, Influential Director of Black Cinema, Dies at 89

Van Peebles directed such films as ‘Watermelon Man’ and ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.’

Image via Cinemation Industries

Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker behind the influential 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and others, has passed away at the age of 89. Van Peebles left a crucial impact on filmmaking as a pioneer of the Blaxploitation subgenre.

Van Peebles was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1932. He earned a B.A. in Literature from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1954 and served for three and a half years in the United States Air Force. In 1957, he shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick, which was later screened at the influential New York City film society Cinema 16. His first and only Hollywood feature was 1970’s Watermelon Man, later transitioning to independent filmmaking with Sweetback. He worked prolifically throughout the rest of his life, with his other directing credits including 1989’s Identity Crisis and 2000’s Bellyful.

His acting credits include the 2003 Shining miniseries and Posse. He frequently collaborated with his son Mario Van Peebles, who starred and directed in films such as New Jack City and Baadasssss!. Outside of filmmaking, he was also known as a prolific novelist, musician, and playwright. He is survived by his children Mario, Megan, and Max.


Image via Cinemation Industries

RELATED: Melvin Van Peebles, Groundbreaking Independent Filmmaker, Gets Career Retrospective With New Criterion Box Set

His passing comes days before The Criterion Collection plans to release a career retrospective box set dedicated to his works. The company released a statement on behalf of the Van Peebles family today, citing his “indelible mark” throughout the many mediums he influenced. Mario also provided a brief statement on the matter, which can be read below in its entirety:

“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.”

The staff here at Collider sends our thoughts and condolences to Van Peebles’ friends, family, and loved ones as they mourn this tremendous loss.

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