Melvin Van Peebles, the godfather of Black cinema, has died

Melvin Van Peebles, the godfather of Black cinema, has died
Melvin Van Peebles (Image source: YouTube/Reel Black)

Melvin Van Peebles, the audacious Hollywood auteur and pioneer who was the first leg of a moviemaking dynasty, died on Sept. 21, 2021. He was 89.

Van Peebles died at his home in New York, his family and Criterion Collection confirmed in a shared statement.

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario Van Peebles, also posted this wordless tribute to this father on his Instagram page.

Melvin Van Peebles, the godfather of Black cinema, has died

“Dad knew that black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles said about this father in a statement released by Criterion. “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.”

Van Peebles was at the pinnacle of his powers during what is known as the “Blaxploitation era in the 1970s when he wrote, directed and acted in a number of seminal films including “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “The Story of a Three Day Pass,” “Watermelon Man” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap.”

Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario, also became a prolific actor and director beginning in the 1990s with the classic gangster film New Jack City starring himself and Wesley Snipes. The son also wrote, directed and starred in important historical pieces in that decade, including Posse, which also starred the father, and Panther, the latter being about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party.

Things came full circle in 2003 when the son Mario Van Peeples made and starred in the film Baadassss, which was a homage to his father’s first big film.

Flip the page to see a 2005 special featuring Van Peebles with two other pillars of Black Hollywood, Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis, as they discussed how they blazed the trail for the blizzard of Black films being made today.

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