Melvin Van Peebles, Icon of Black Cinema, Dies at 89

Van Peebles was a titan of Black cinema with his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles. Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage

Melvin Van Peebles, an iconic auteur of Black cinema, has died. He was 89.

Van Peebles died on Tuesday night "at home with family," according to a statement released on Wednesday by his family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.

"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."

Van Peebles son and longtime collaborator, Mario Van Peebles, said in the statement, "Dad knew that Black images matter. 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 born on Aug. 21, 1932, in Chicago. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University and joined the Air Force after graduating.

The actor, writer and director worked as a cable car gripman in San Francisco, which was the subject of his first book The Big Heart.

He shot his first short film in 1957 called Pickup Men for Herrick. His first feature-length film The Story of a Three-Day Pass debuted in 1968.

Melvin Van Peebles
Mario and Melvin Van Peebles. Randall Michelson/WireImage

Van Peebles' follow-up film was 1970's Watermelon Man, a comedy about a casually racist white man who wakes up as a Black man and finds himself alienated from his friends, family and job.

In 1971, Van Peebles released the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss, which was funded by his own money and in part by a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby.

Van Peebles wrote, directed, edited and starred in the movie which grossed $10 million.

That same year, the multihyphenate penned the Broadway musical and score Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death.

His son Mario's 2003 film BAADASSSSS! tells the story about the making of the 1971 film.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. courtesy everette collection

While he continued to work in films and in theater, Van Peebles also became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange in the 1980s.

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In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), as well as Unstoppable: Conversation with Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis.

Other credits of Van Peebles include roles in Jaws: The Revenge, Posse, the miniseries The Shining as Dick Hallorann, All My Children alongside his son, Redemption Road and 2018's Armed, his last screen credit.

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