time the late 605 had come around, for instance. he’d had ﬁve novels published in France (where he’d lived in exile to escape from the oppression of the US) and made one of them into a movie. The Story OfA Three-Day Pass, which follows a black Gl’s relationship with a white French girl and provided Van Peebles’s passport back to America.
There he was to establish his credentials as the Godfather of New Black Cinema with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a picaresque ethnic epic he wrote, produced, directed. edited and scored — and which became the highest grossing independent production in US box ofﬁce history when released in I971. Sweet Sweetback was praised by Black Panther leader Huey Newton as ‘the ﬁrst truly revolutionary movie’ and made mandatory viewing for all Panther members. Earlier, when Newton had been put on remand under trumped-up manslaughter charges, the ﬁrst of Melvin Van Peebles’s eight albums — the rare groove Brer Soul — carried just two words on the front cover: ‘Free Huey!’
Clearly, the man has been there, done that, and he eventually put his observations and experience into another novel, Panther, the basis for the ﬁlm (the screenplay is almost word for word what’s on the page) just published in the UK for the ﬁrst time by enterprising Edinburgh-based imprint Canongate to coincide with the ﬁlm. ‘ln one of my previous incarnations I was a crime reporter, so it was my natural inclination to look for clues, to answer questions.’ Melvin reﬂects on the gestation of
‘Do we make guns in the ghettos? No. Do we manufacture drugs in the ghettos? No. It sure ain’t the brothers airlifting the Uzis in and dropping them down from helicopters.’
the novel. ‘Hcre you had a group of young black men. the Panthers. who’d been portrayed by the media establishment as ne’er-do-wells and none-too-brights. But if they were so stupid. how did they grow from being a small posse to running a nationwide organisation with more than 100 chapters“? lfthey werejust racists. then how come the Peace and Freedom Party, one of the major white radical groups of the time. joined together with them to put up combined candidates for the presidential election? Hey guys, what’s wrong with this picture?
‘The other strand that I wanted to get into the book was to ponder the direct correlation between the rise of black militancy in the ghettos and the rise of drug use. Pure serendipity? Or was there a more sinister explanation? Just look at the economics. Do we make guns in the ghettos? No. Do we manufacture drugs in the ghettos? No. There has to have been some kind of operation to get that stuff in there in those amounts. It sure ain’t the brothers airlifting the Uzis in and dropping them down from helicopters. What you’re left with is what’s called the self-cleaning oven: put the guns and the crack in there and just leave it to feed on itself. a self-contained problem.’
With such incendiary material, Melvin reckoned he’d be lucky to get even a book deal. but when he showed Mario his penultimate
draft, the idea for Panther the movie was born. It may have taken some nine years for it to reach the screen. but it’s there in a version that’s punchy. powerful and remarkably faithful to its author’s original intentions. It has all come about largely due to the ascendancy of Mario’s directorial star in the meantime, even though father and son have exchanged many a rueful smile along the rocky road to full ﬁnancing. ‘What we’d get.’ explains Mario, who’s inherited his dad’s good looks and seems intent on reminding us of the fact by manually adjusting the contents of his shorts every ﬁve minutes. ‘was this routine from the studio execs. We love the script. they’d tell us. We love Melvin. Power to the people. We’re with you. It’s just we have this dilemma: we’re in Hollywood. so if you’d like a lot of money for this movie, you really need a major white character. The Panthers hung out with Hollywood types like Brando. Jean Seberg, Jane
The involvement of both generations from the . Van Peebles family also allows for today’s viewer to ponder more than a few cross- cultural/historical links and look for a way around today’s apparent set of sociological impasses. In their family ties and in the movie, for instance, you’ll see the traces between the era of Malcolm X. Dr Martin Luther King and the Panthers’ main men — Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver — and the'current political vacuum hanging between Jesse Jackson and Dr Farrakhan; between the generation when Marvin Gaye asked ‘What’s Going On?’ and Sly,.Stone told him ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, and the current crop of variously aggressive, articulate and often extremely successful rappers. who may play with the Panther iconography in their videos but have yet to transform their inﬂuence into a clearly deﬁned political movement.
‘What gang culture and rap culture has
‘What gang culture and rap culture has inherited today Is the Panthers’ bravado, but what they’re still missing is their political ideology and their organisational skills. I’m not saying that the Panthers uttered the only way out, but they read some law books, got their act together and showed us one of the ways out.’
Fonda — how about it if. say, a Bridget Fonda type took these young black guys under her wing, taught them to read and think. and just started off the revolution that way?’
Actually, we have British production company Working Title to thank for the fact that yet another celluloid whitewash mercifully was avoided. ‘Their attitude.’ recalls Mario, ‘was that if we could do it for a third of the cost of JFK or Malcolm X, then we could do it and do it on our own terms. We had right of final cut and, once that got out. people were flocking to help us out on the production.’
Using the composite character of Bokeem Hardison’s Judge as an effective way of exploring the development. structure and objectives of the Panthers’ organisation. as well as the FBl’s plans to inﬁltrate and destroy it, Panther the movie is a textbook example of an informative, politically uncompromised picture that alsojust happens to kick it as entertainment.
I ‘ I .5 .‘u-
Famlly attalr: Melvin and Marlo Van Peebles
inherited today is the Panthers’ bravado.’ reﬂects Mario with a degree of positivity for the future, ‘but what they’re still missing is their political ideology and their organisational skills. I’m not saying that the Panthers offered the only way out, but they read some law books. got their act together and showed us one of the ways out. And there are people today who’re waking up to that fact all the time. Sure. there’s still a lot of peOple too “medicated” to care or too busy shooting each other, but in making a ﬁlm that spreads a little self-knowledge, we can only be making a contribution.’
‘The conditions are still there. after all,’ Van Peebles senior chips in with the last word. ‘People can only be pushed so far and then they have to react. Sooner or later, a lot of folks just gonna be saying “Whooah there!”’
Panther the movie is due to open in Scotland on Friday I 0 November. The novel is published by Canongate, £7.99.
The List 3- 16 Nov 1995 13