Melvin Van Peebles is a genius; that's a fact, not a compliment. If it were a compliment, I'd have used an exclamation point at the end of that sentence, and I'm really not a big enough fan of his work to do so. What I am, though, is an admirer of his aptitude and hard work, both of which are prominently displayed in the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a phenomenal outline of the man's prolific and varied life, directed by Joe Angio.
Van Peebles is best known for Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, a surprise hit from 1971, which he wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited and starred in. The low-budget film set records for independent cinema, served as the primary inspiration for its decade's blaxploitation genre, and it became a major influence on today's African-American filmmakers, particularly Spike Lee. Two years ago its notoriety was given another boost, as its production was immortally dramatized in a movie made by Melvin's son Mario Van Peebles, entitled Baadasssss!
Despite maintaining a narrative focus on Melvin (it was partially adapted from his book Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss
Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifest), Baadasssss! is undeniably as much —if not more— about the
junior Van Peebles, who at 13 appeared in his dad's movie. Mario's personal reflection piece is too subjectively
skewed, and though he paid a balanced tribute to his father, he still failed to properly represent him, for what he
Angio's doc, on the other hand, completely outdoes Baadasssss! with regards to Melvin Van Peeble's true character and legacy. How to... not only features a concise, exhaustive compilation of footage and interviewees that spans half a decade and half a globe, but it pays sufficient concentration to each and every aspect and division of the man's history. This includes his time spent struggling with his most famous work, and it makes a feature-length drama seem like an excessive and unnecessary idea in retrospect. It also includes his time as a painter, a poet, a novelist, journalist, astronomer, marathon runner, news commentator and writer-director-producer of Broadway musicals, in addition to spotlighting some of his other film work.
Van Peebles is a total nerd, going back to a youth spent primarily in the library, and he's a total stud, forever dividing his weeks among no fewer than three women at a time, each allotted her own permanently designated two- or three-night share. Nothing comes difficult to him. During his appearances in How to... he presents himself as intelligent, cool, funny, honest, unforgiving, and extremely pleased with himself. If he has any flaws at all I can't remember one.
Something that Angio does not supply is Van Peebles' IQ, the measure of which is the easiest and most acceptable
way of defining a genius. I stand by my opening statement, though, and the doc supports it by pointing to an
amazing assortment of evidence. A genius is not merely someone of intelligence or ability or an inherent talent. A
genius is best defined as someone with an innate thought process and problem solving skill, which gives him an
advantage in amassing intelligence, abilities and talents. If the encouraging phrase, "you can do anything your
heart desires" really means "any one thing" for us normal folks,
for a genius it actually means "everything".
Melvin Van Peebles taught himself how to compose and perform music by working with his own uniquely devised system
of notation and direction. Melvin Van Peebles moved to Paris, quickly and comprehensively learned French, and then
authored five novels in his new, second language. He even walked into the American Stock Exchange, trained himself as
an options trader on a bet, and within years acquired enough of an understanding to write a laymen's guide on the
subject. If Melvin Van Peebles isn't a genius, then I don't know who is.
There is a significant difference in knowing that someone is a genius and merely believing it, yet the boundary is often unclear when discussing and praising artists. The idea can get pretty confusing when you realize that a real genius can produce a lot of bad work, stuff that fails commercially and critically, and a non-genius can produce a lot of great, even brilliant, work. It is often the case with art that chance is more powerful than intention.
I could pronounce Angio a genius after seeing his film, based solely on his ability to craft a perfect biographical doc — informative, entertaining and displaying a keenly appropriate use of the genre's techniques — without the need of backing up my claim, but I couldn't publish the statement in an encyclopedia unless I was able to prove it truthful. Though his doc is deserving of high praise, I would rather reserve such a pronouncement for later, provided he continues making films. I typically find it foolish to declare opinions of a presumptive nature on the success of a single effort.
Presently there is probably a greater argument to be made for Angio not being a genius. In December, as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Time Out New York, he allowed a story about Terrence Malick's film The New World with the title "Squaw Talent", unaware of its offensive nature. Not smart. A week later, following a wave of complaints, he resigned from the publication. His reason? To concentrate on the release of this film. Never mind that How to... is so far only scheduled for a one-week engagement at the Film Forum in New York.
During this run, the documentary is being paired up with a number of Melvin Van Peebles' films, plus Baadasssss!, as 2-for-1 double features. While I enjoyed Angio's film far more than any of the ones in this retrospective I've seen (which is about half), I think the match ups are a terrific idea, and I recommend seeing one of the pairings as opposed to only seeing How to... The problem is each pair creates a separate experience in comparative viewing, and I find it hard choosing which two to suggest.
Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song obviously is being offered the most screenings with How to..., and historically there is good reason to see it. In general, however, the monumental and then groundbreaking film doesn't feel significant today. Telling the story of a cop-killing pimp on the run, it is quite boring, disturbing and dated, with intentionally dark, aesthetically displeasing cinematography, and its best feature is a soundtrack by Earth, Wind and Fire, for whom the film was their big break. Angio's documentary will actually familiarize you with the film enough with its selection of clips and background.
Watermelon Man is something completely different from both Sweet and How to... Van Peebles shot this social satire for Hollywood prior to making his famous indie, though he didn't compromise himself at all. Comedian Godfrey Cambridge gives a very funny performance as a casually racist white man who one day wakes up black (he begins the film in white face, going against the historical practice of casting a white man in black face). Probably the most entertaining accompaniment to Angio's doc, it doesn't completely fit in with Van Peebles' reputation and distinction.
Baadasssss! is a perfect companion, despite its shortcomings, because it provides a footnote to a part of the doc for which you may want to explore further, even if in a dramatic treatment. Or, you could just read Melvin Van Peebles' book about its making. But there is one important piece of Baadasssss! that I really wish was in How to..., and that is Bill Cosby's interview during the final credits. His thoughts are better than anything else in that film, and very few of those interviewed by Angio match his comprehension of Melvin Van Peebles, the genius.
Correction and Update: Joe Angio's resignation from Time Out New York had been given to his boss, Alison Tocci, the week before his departure was officially announced, meaning he technically quit before the magazine had received any complaints about the "Squaw Talent" headline. His definite reason for leaving was to concentrate on How to Eat a Watermelon..., not the speculated effect of the controversy. Currently Angio is working on getting his documentary booked to other theatres for limited release and he has already made deals for its distribution on television and on video, tasks made easier since being able to devote full-time to the film. He is involved in all aspects of representing and marketing the film and he will soon begin production on his next documentary, which will be about Swiss police photographer turned celebrated artist Arrnold Odermatt.