ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE   A-CD-GH-LM-RS-Z

Melvin Van Peebles
National Visionary


Born August 21, 1932
Chicago, Illinois

Filmmaker








BIOGRAPHY
Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles has made his mark in movies, television, literature, music, and on Broadway.

He was born August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois, to Marion Van Peebles, and Edward Griffin, a tailor.

Mr. Van Peebles graduated from Thornton Township High School in Phoenix, Illinois, in 1949, and attended predominantly African-American West Virginia State College. He transferred after one year to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.

In 1953, Mr. Van Peebles joined the U.S. Air Force. He met Maria Marx, a White German woman, and they married in 1955.

After leaving the U.S. Air Force, Mr. Van Peebles and his wife moved to Mexico where his son, Mario, was born in 1957.

That year, the family moved to San Francisco where Mr. Van Peebles wrote a book, The Big Heart, in 1957, about his life driving cable cars.

About this time, Mr. Van Peebles became disgusted with the racist portrayal of African-Americans in film. With no background in filmmaking, Mr. Van Peebles made two short films, Sunlight and Three Pick-up Men for Herrick. In turn, Hollywood offered him jobs as an elevator operator and dancer.

In 1959, he moved his family, which now included daughter Megan, to Holland where he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and acting at the Dutch National Theater.

Mr. Van Peebles was invited to show his shorts at the Cinematheque Francaise film theater in Paris. As his marriage ended, he moved to France, and his wife and children moved to San Francisco.

He began to write books in France, and his fifth book was adapted into his first feature-length movie, Story of a Three Day Pass. The movie, an interracial love story, dealt with racism.

In 1968, Mr. Van Peebles, who never studied music, recorded the album Brer Soul , about urban life in a series of monologues set to music. Gil Scott Heron, who many consider the "godfather of rap," said he was influenced by Mr. Van Peebles' music. Some call Mr. Van Peebles the "grandfather of rap."

Mr. Van Peebles answered Hollywood's call in 1970 and directed Watermelon Man, the first mainstream studio-financed film directed by an African-American.

After Watermelon Man , Mr. Van Peebles wrote, produced and directed 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which tells the story of a man who becomes a cop-killing anti-hero after watching police beat a community activist.

Mr. Van Peebles hired minorities with little film experience so they could learn the business. He also refused to submit his film for rating after the Motion Picture Association of America threatened to rate it "X" because of the movie's sex scenes. MPAA rated the movie "X" anyway. Mr. Van Peebles then came up with the slogan, "Rated X By An All-White Jury," which motivated African-American audiences to see his film. The film grossed $14 million dollars, making it one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

Some criticized the movie for its perceived role in the development of the blaxploitation genre. Mr. Van Peebles, however, says blaxploitation movies removed the revolutionary and political elements that were in his movie.

In 1971, Mr. Van Peebles created the Broadway musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death , which became the fifth-longest running show on Broadway.

Since then, Mr. Van Peebles has continued to direct, act, write, produce and compose music.

Mr. Van Peebles worked on Wall Street in 1985. The following year he wrote the book, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market, an introduction to options trading for the beginning investor.

In 1998, Mr. Van Peebles performed a cabaret show called Roadkill with Brer Soul . That same year, Mr. Van Peebles' documentary, Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X, about the negative images of African-Americans in film, appeared at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Mr. Van Peebles was made a knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France, in 2002.

In 2004, son Mario wrote, directed, and starred in Baadasssss! about the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song . In 2006, the documentary, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) , which chronicled Mr. Van Peebles' career, was released.

Mr. Van Peebles continues to perform, write, direct and discuss the role of African-Americans in film. Mr. Van Peebles' last film was 2008's Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha .

VIDEO CLIPS


EXTERNAL LINKS
Melvin Van Peebles's Wikipedia Page

RELATED LINKS
Gordon Parks's Visionary Page (Filmmaker)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/vanpeeblesmelvin


ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE   A-CD-GH-LM-RS-Z