Melvin Van Peebles. The director who stuck it to the man with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song”, a film showing an independent black character rallying against the white world and surviving, helped to change the face of cinema forever by giving black Americans a stronger voice. Standing alone this accomplishment would prove the crown jewel in the cap of most artists, however Melvin Van Peebles is not most artists. The riveting documentary “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)” directed by Joe Angio profiles Van Peebles before, during and after the success of “Sweetback”, showing an entertainment pioneer that was able to successfully transcend mediums and raise consciousness as he went.
A streetcar operator who was fired for writing a book based upon his experiences because his boss did not believe a black man should be able to read or write, Van Peebles found himself attracted to filmmaking. Upon learning that under French law, a published author could receive a temporary director’s card to bring their work to the screen and seeing how the French people were more accepting of his short films, Van Peebles relocated to Europe. Teaching himself French and working for a volatile political humor magazine on the side, Peebles set out to get his film made. His first feature “La Permission” (The Story of a Three Day Pass) dealt with the story of a black man on three day leave from the army falling in love with a white French woman and societies inability to accept such a union. The film was a hit and ended up at the San Francisco film festival, however American critics were shocked to find that the artistic French director they had been expecting was in reality a disgruntled black man from the States!
With twists and turns such as this marking his life, Peebles is quickly shown to be much more than the guy who made “Sweetback”. Not finding films about the black man’s place in the world Peebles makes his own. Not relating to any music made about black America, Peebles releases his own records. Not seeing any theater realistically portraying the black lifestyle Peebles writes his own plays and becomes the only black playwright to this day to have two works running simultaneously on Broadway. What is most amazing is Peebles justification for his actions, stating that he was a filmmaker, musician and playwright not so much because he loved the mediums but because he wanted to create the type of art that he felt was missing from the world.
Told through old footage, pictures and interviews with both Peebles and the people closest to and inspired by him “HTEYWIWC” is a wild trip through Peebles’ life considering how many hats he wore. Peebles admits that the only reason he made so much money off his various endeavors was because people were too afraid to join him and thus he had to fund everything himself. While his films may be rough by today’s standards and even Peebles son, actor/director Mario Van Peebles, is first to admit his fathers singing voice resembles a “frog on crack” the fact that Peebles dared to dream as large as he did and break down doors where no one else would is a testament to artistic perseverance in any medium.
If anything, one wishes the film would have spent even more time with Peebles in his personal life. While the fact Peebles is a notorious ladies man is addressed directly there never seems to be any candid footage by those interviewed on how they felt about Peebles and his sometimes rough exterior. It would have been nice to have seen how Peebles’ children felt about their legend of a father but this is a minor gripe in an otherwise gripping portrait of a Renaissance man.
Most people dream of making a film half as influential as “Sweetback” and the fact that Peebles accomplished that and so much more is awe inspiring. Seeing how “HTEYWIWC” succeeds in showing this success and also the nuts and bolts behind Peebles marketing genius in such an entertaining manner, Peebles has won yet again.