“I can’t grow more film.”
– Melvin Peebles bemoaning another cash-flow problem
In BAADASSSSS!, a son directing, producing and starring in a feature about his father’s breakthrough film thirty years back brings a host of images and issues to the screen that are bound to stimulate thought. Mario Van Peebles has done his family proud by pulling together this blackumentary that tells it like it was even as it falls into the trap of stereotyping others – ten steps forward, two back.
Set in 1971 the narrative sections look and feel great: Mario’s (Khleo Thomas playing Melvin’s son with innocent ease) Afro looks fine, the dog Nixon is an excellent metaphor and a long shot with the Capitol Records building in background adds discreet reinforcement of time and place.
Sprinkled throughout are cutaways to interview quotes from the principals. These work best in the credits where the actors step aside and let the real players have a word or two. However, one of the finest pretenders is T.K. Carter’s impersonation of Bill Cosby – any doubts that his looks raise are immediately quashed by the tone and rhythm of his voice. Earth, Wind & Fire also convince, but sadly, their music takes a back seat to the plot point of a five hundred dollar cheque that Mario reminds his dad “you don’t have.”
Rainn Wilson shines as Bill Harris, nutcase producer extraordinaire. “He who has the gold makes the rules.” As he and Peebles cobble together the cash and crew (a wonderful depiction of black/white banter and cooperation), they manage a hilarious escapade in bed. At first we’re wondering if both have been in touch with their “feminine” side, only to have their bedmates emerge from under the sheets. Not so subtle was B-movie mogul Bert’s (Adam West) “dropping of the towel” as the filmmakers continued their quest for cash. In supporting roles, Joy Bryant’s (Priscilla) charged sexuality sizzles while sound assistant/security hulk and – finally – gentle giant Terry Crews sails through his role as Big T with aplomb.
Throughout it all is the subtext that a film which shows “dirty cops” for the bullies and racists they are needs to be made – at any cost. The extent of that price was deftly illustrated in the scene when, driving home after a shoot, the crew is arrested because the equipment found in their car “must have been stolen,” yet their leader remains safe at home, making no attempt to bail them out. “This is a war – it’s bigger than two days in jail!”
Finally complete, sale and distribution are the next obstacles to emerge. Eventually, the film shifts to Detroit, one of 2 venues (Atlanta the other) that agrees to screen the X-rated flick. Peebles convinces the managers to show it by itself rather than sandwiched between two other “safer” entertainments: His story deserves to stand alone. No doubt that it does, but by portraying the theatre’s management, ticket seller – even the refreshment stand kid – as tight-fisted near-Merchant of Venice caricatures, the film immediately loses its moral authority to criticize the attitudes and prejudices of others.
Still, this is an important film if for no other reason than its comment about the value (and paradoxically the power) that in-your-face art has. Particularly when – as here – the expected protagonists (black, brown or white) work together, ply their craft and create a work that provides some comfort to the minority and a large dose of caution to the majority. Taken in that light, BAADASSSSS! is a worthy companion to many of James Baldwin’s societal observations.