Determined not to be the docile stereotype that Hollywood demands, Melvin Van Peebles (Mario Van Peebles) sets out to make a film revealing the realities of being a black man in '70s America.
Last year's The Life & Death Of Peter Sellers was just the latest in a long line of showbiz biopics to include behind-the-scenes revelations from some of cinema's greatest hits. But movies devoted to the production of a single picture are fewer and further between, with the studied melodramatics of Ridley Scott's ropey Citizen Kane teleplay, RKO 281, going some way to explaining why. Plus, today's DVD featurettes make dramatic re-enactments seem less immediate and informative.
Yet Mario Van Peebles' rough-edged recreation is as much about a moment in US social history as it is about the struggle to finish a film in the face of financial hardship and racial prejudice. More than just a memoir of how his father Melvin's radical 1971 urban drama, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, came to ignite the blaxsploitation boom, it's a chronicle of how African-American actors finally laid to rest the ghost of the Uncle Tom-ism that had blighted the performing arts since the mid-19th century.
Van Peebles neatly squares a circle here; having, as a child, played the young Melvin in Sweetback, he now portrays the adult Melvin, essaying the visionary who completed his picture for a mere $150,000. It's a shame, then, that he gives us little impression of Melvin the man, while his direction lacks the raw sense of risk and urgency that informed a shoot perpetually on the verge of implosion. Instead, he adopts a disappointingly traditional "underdog triumphant" tone for a story that is, in many ways, more compelling than that of the courageous, contentious, but often misogynistic and sluggish movie it recalls. The prolonged sequence surrounding the Detroit premiere is particularly olde Hollywoode, as everyone hangs around in a slough of despond until word-of-mouth ensures they have a hit on their hands.
It's as though Van Peebles doesn't have faith in the duels his father had with the money men, the porn actors and amateurs who made up his cast, and the censors (that "all-white jury") who imposed a potentially ruinous X certificate - hence the decision to pepper the action with original footage and interviews to reinforce the project's documentary credentials.
Despite the interesting subject and promise of the father-portraying-son dynamic, this plays very much like a standard biopic, lacking the dangerous spirit of the movie that inspired it.