Don’t make it too clear that we’re saying “Fuck you.”Melvin Van Peebles to Mantan Moreland, 1969
Melvin Van Peebles’s blistering satire Watermelon Man (1970)—the only film that he made for a Hollywood studio—has long lived in the shadows of his other work, especially the film that immediately followed it, the popular and controversial 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The story of one man’s evolution from apolitical sex performer to Black Power revolutionary, Sweet Sweetback altered the trajectory of Black representation in Hollywood with its complex portrayal of Black identity and experience and its deliberately political message. Its success signaled the commercial viability of Black films at the box office, making it a pivotal moment in the representation of Blackness on-screen. Because of Sweet Sweetback’s status, Watermelon Man has typically been discussed mainly as a prelude to it, setting up the filmmaker’s shift from Hollywood studio director to independent maverick.
But Watermelon Man merits appreciation in its own right, not only for its often overlooked revolutionary themes—which build on the sentiments of Van Peebles’s first feature, The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967), and anticipate the politics of Sweet Sweetback—but also, and most importantly, because it demonstrates how Black directors are able to realize their creative and ideological visions, crafting ingenious ways to articulate their perspectives, even while working within antagonistic institutions. Both Watermelon Man and the story of how Van Peebles made the film can indeed be thought of as metaphors for the Black experience in Hollywood more broadly. And so Van Peebles’s brief but significant experience as a director under contract with Columbia Pictures is much more than a footnote. It stands as a testament to his ambition to criticize Hollywood’s and society’s racism, as he said, “from the inside out.”
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