Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Nia Long, Ossie Davis, David Allan Grier, T.K. Carter, Paul Rodriguez, John Singleton, Saul Rubinek, Sally Struthers, and Adam West
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Writing Credits: Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (US 2004)
Rated: R for pervasive language and some strong sexuality/nudity

With a revved-up title like BAADASSSSS!, the filmmakers had better be going for one of two things: nonstop action or nonstop irony. Mario Van Peebles' amiable drama, which features the kick-butt title in question, settles for the latter. For while it may be many lovely things, it is not very baadasss to make an homage to one's own father -- in Mario's case, the legendary director/actor Melvin Van Peebles, who created the independent 1971 hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song which launched the blaxploitation genre and redefined cinematic possibilities for African-Americans.

Although the young Van Peebles wants to emulate his father's economically-driven aesthetic (shot digitally for only $1 million) and the shit-kicking, take-no-prisoners attitude exemplified in the title, Mario has essentially created a warm hearted, carefully crafted paean to Dad. The love is evident in every frame; it's clear that Mario sees his father both as an underrated innovator and a personal hero. While such gauzy adoration causes BAADASSSSS! to be less defined than it should be, the obvious affection makes the uneven film heartfelt...and entertaining.

For where would we be, Mario argues, without Melvin? The answer, at least as portrayed in BAADASSSSS!, is not too far. It's not overstating the case that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song changed the independent film industry forever, broadening both its social and economic horizons. The film, which outpaced Love Story at the box office without advertising or studio backing, empowered its audience with fully realized, sexual, and politically aware black characters in an odd combination of action, soft-core, and thriller. While the movement Sweetback kickstarted may be remembered these days for its campier classics, it is important to note -- and to remember -- that blaxploitation began with the astounding feat of black filmmakers creating black visions for black audiences.

As paeans are wont to do, however, the young Van Peebles' gently comic dramedy sometimes overstates Sweetback's case. While one can easily argue its deserved spot in cinematic history, it's a stretch to place BAADASSSSS! in the pantheonic heights of the civil rights struggle itself. Certainly, the growth of the Black Panther Party at the time has a more historically accurate basis for claims as an agent of social change. Director Van Peebles can be excused for his enthusiasm, but to place his father on too high a pedestal makes for something worse than a bad reshapes the very history BAADASSSSS! sets out to document and re-enact.

Truly, BAADASSSSS! is better when it focuses on the personal instead of the politic...especially in dramatizing the overlap between creative vision and self-indulgence. Van Peebles had a bit of both, and his son -- who was forced at an early age to be filmed in sexual situations in Sweetback, by his own father -- is in a perfect position to capture these incongruities. On the one hand, BAADASSSSS! is a lively snapshot of the struggle all artists face when attempting to fulfill their vision; on the other, it is a portrait of a man obsessed to the point of physical illness. That these two forces co-exist in Melvin Van Peebles isn't surprising, but his inability to control their swings and repercussions is. As pitfall after pitfall occurs to the hardy film crew of Sweetback, one can get lost in the what-else-can-possibly-go-wrong spirit that fuels creative necessity. On a deeper level, however, we find that Melvin's obsessive need to achieve his goal is often coarsely brutal...but that fact doesn't diminish his accomplishment in the least.

Director, writer and star Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) plays his father with the intensity of a man possessed, and the hard edge that occasionally goes missing in his other acting efforts is used to full affect in BAADASSSSS! Balancing him nicely is Nia Long (Love Jones), whose smart and soulful Sandra smoothes Melvin's rough edges time and time again. Charming supporting parts are filled by everyone from Saul Rubinek to Sally Struthers to Academy Award-nominated director John Singleton. There's a communal aura to the ensemble, a sort of let's-put-on-a-play camaraderie that belies the love they clearly have for the project. Relishing in the bouncy, live colors that can come from digital filmmaking, cinematographer Robert Primes forgoes a stylistic copy of Sweetback's look for a pop-infused gloss on the period.

One of the most surprising moments of BAADASSSSS! is its end credits, where many of the fictionalized characters are replaced by their real-life counterparts: Bill Cosby (who in part funded Sweetback), cameraman Jose Garcia, Megan Van Peebles, and others, who imbue a quickly-drawn historicism on the piece. The final shot, of the elderly Melvin smoking his trademark cigar, is as loving a coda as one is likely to see. Moderately entertaining, BAADASSSSS! captures a particular moment and a particular movement with good-natured energy and a bit of egomania run amok. Would that all sons might be so good to their dads.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews & the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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