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Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films

The Story of a Three Day Pass: Ordinary Love

<em>The Story of a Three Day Pas</em>s<em>:</em> Ordinary Love

If I’m going to make it in cinema, I’ll make it on my own terms.

I didn’t come this far to fink out, to get in The Man’s bag, 

to talk his dialect and mouth his terms.

Melvin Van Peebles, 1967

For someone who insisted, throughout his career, on “the right to be ordinary,” Melvin Van Peebles is, quite ironically, exceptional. A much-mythologized figure, in no small part by himself, Van Peebles nonetheless earned his reputation for tenacity and audacity. He is a true Renaissance man: novelist, playwright, actor, composer, painter, options trader, and, most notoriously, screenwriter, director, and producer. Through all these facets of his incredible creativity, what consistently marks his extraordinary life is an uncanny ability to navigate customary constraints, to refuse their terms, and to forge his own way—starting with the improbable success he had with his first feature film, The Story of a Three Day Pass, made in France in 1967 and launching him on a trajectory that would change the course of American cinema.

The American film industry was not a welcoming place for an African American aspiring director, so at the age of twenty‑seven, with two short films under his belt and a set of original scenarios, Van Peebles and his family left the United States for Europe. Ultimately, working in France gave him the opportunity to direct a feature and to control all aspects of its production—an unfathomable degree of access and autonomy compared with what Hollywood could offer. He took every advantage of this relative freedom to make a remarkable, daring, and formally innovative feature debut. In it, he established a distinctive filmic style that would carry through his career, one that blends formal experimentation and genre play in service of equally daring, often radical, narratives.

The film tells the story of Turner, an African American soldier stationed in France, who receives three days of leave in advance of a promised promotion (albeit to only the position of assistant orderly), along with a stern warning from his captain—euphemistically cloaked in a discussion of “trust”—against fraternizing with white Frenchwomen. Turner—a character Van Peebles described as “a black cat who is a human being”—arrives in Paris as a lonely sightseer, searching for connection and wandering somewhat aimlessly until evening. At a nightclub, he meets Miriam, a white Frenchwoman, who agrees to go with him to the Normandy seaside for the rest of his leave. They communicate through shreds of each other’s language and find affinity despite awkwardness and misunderstandings. Once they are at the beach, they encounter three white soldiers from Turner’s base, and his worry that they will inform the captain that he was with a white woman clouds the couple’s remaining time together but also brings them closer. What began as a weekend fling turns into deeper sentiment—they fall in love. Though his apprehension turns out to have been justified.

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