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Iconic Filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, Has Joined The Ancestors At 89

Iconic Filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, Has Joined The Ancestors At 89

He was a legend in Hollywood!

Melvin Van Peebles, the trailblazing filmmaker, dubbed the godfather of Black film, went home to the ancestors at 89 Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. The Criterion Collection announced his passing on Twitter.

Born on Aug 21, 1932, on the South Side of Chicago, and grew up in Phoenix, Ill. His father owned a tailor shop, where he put him to work at 10 and taught him street smarts, like selling unclaimed clothing for a profit. While his mother hoped he'd be the first in the family to attend college, encouraging his interest in art history. 

She got her wish. When Van Peebles graduated high school in 1949, he attended West Virginia State College (now University), a Historically Black College and University, before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University. There he majored in English literature and joined the R.O.T.C. The director graduated at 20, joined the Air Force, and married German actress Maria Marx while in the service. The newlyweds moved to Mexico City after he couldn't find work with a commercial airline; there, they started their family with the birth of their son Mario Van Peebles. The couple moved back to the U.S., settling in San Francisco, where he created short films and had three more children, the late Megan Van Peebles, Max Van Peebles, and Marguerite Van Peebles. 

In 1959, Van Peebles decided to move his family to The Netherlands, where he decided to add the "Van" to his last name. There he studied graduate courses in astronomy and studied acting at the Dutch National Theatre. When his marriage ended, Maria moved the children back to the states. At the time, he stayed in Europe, leaving his astronomy courses when the Cinémathèque Française invited him to screen his short films in Paris. He made his first feature-length film, "The Story of a Three-Day Pass," an adaptation of his novel "La Permission," debuted at the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival. The story of a Black American soldier's relationship with a white French woman caught Hollywood's eyes after it won the Critics' Choice award. 

In 1970, he became the first Black director of a mainstream feature film when he released "Watermelon Man" in the U.S. It follows a racist white man that turns Black and has to navigate his new reality. The distributors, Columbia Pictures, wanted him to shoot two endings - one where the lead becomes a Black militant, and the other where he wakes up from a dream. Van Peebles "forgot" to shoot the second, and the rest is film history.

To have complete control over his films in the future, he became an independent filmmaker. He used his savings of $70,000, loans, nonunion crews, and generous film labs that allowed him to edit on credit, to create his third feature film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."

The multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director-composer was considered a renaissance man. He made movies, wrote and produced Broadway musicals, wrote and performed spoken word albums that have been called the precursor to modern rap. He also worked as a cable-car driver in San Francisco, painted portraits in Mexico City, was a street performer in Paris, traded stock options in New York, flew B-47 planes in the Air Force as a flight navigator, a postal worker, and a visual artist. 

Among his many labels, he was known as a Hollywood maverick that was integral in sheepherding in a new era of Black filmmaking. He once called himself "the Rosa Parks of Black cinema" as one of the first Black filmmakers to reach a mainstream audience. He used his platform to cast mainly Black people with soundtracks filled with funk and soul music, which was not seen at the time. His movies resonated with the Black youth of the day who were militantly fighting against oppressions. He dedicated "Sweetback," which was released in 1971, to "all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man." These films helped create a new era in cinema called blaxploitation.

"For the first time in cinematic history in America, a movie speaks out of an undeniable Black consciousness," Sam Washington wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times.

Although his films at times drew ire from civil rights groups such as the N.A.A.C.P. due to its at times risqué content, he told The New York Times Magazine in 1972 that his movies were challenging stereotypes that white peoples used "to confuse, drain and colonize our minds."

Due to the success of his films, he was able to create successful stage plays like "Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death" and "Don't Play Us Cheap!" Broadway, which both received Tony Award nominations. Throughout his career, he continued to act, sometimes collaborating with his son, Mario, and even started a band called Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative.  

He made history again in the 80s as the first Black trader on the American Stock Exchange. Then in 1986, he wrote a self-help financial book, "Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market," which described the stock market as a game of chance that wasn't that far off from Atlantic City gambling tables. 

Van Peebles spoke to Black Enterprise about what some would call an uncharacteristic career path as a stoke trader. 

"The public image is only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The bedrock is my entrepreneurial self. At that level, there's not really much difference between financing plays and movies and trading on Wall Street."

The iconic filmmaker's legacy has informed modern Black moviemakers like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and especially his son, Mario. Without him forcing the gates open, the world would be devoid of much of the creativity we're seeing in Black film today.

"I didn't even know I had a legacy," he told The New York Times in 2010. "I do what I want to do." 

His daughter, Megan, passed away in 2006. He is survived by his sons Mario and Max, his daughter Marguerite, and 11 grandchildren.

Rest in power!

Photo Credit: Getty Images