Filmmaker, author and songwriter Melvin Van Peebles has died, aged 89.
The brains behind cult classics “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” passed away on Tuesday (September 21).
A family statement reads: “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.
“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.”
Dubbed the Godfather of Black Cinema, Van Peebles shot to fame with his mainstream directorial debut, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” and landed the job of bringing “Watermelon Man” to the big screen in 1970.
The racial satire, starring Godfrey Cambridge, was a huge hit, scoring Van Peebles a three-picture deal at Columbia, but movie executives were not thrilled with his plans for his follow-up, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” forcing the director to make the movie a low-budget affair, using cash loaned to him by Bill Cosby.
Melvin wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the film, while also starring as the title character.
Following its release, the movie became the highest-grossing independent film in history.
Van Peebles followed the success of the movie with Broadway musicals “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” which picked up a pair of Tony nominations in 1972, and “Don’t Play Us Cheap!” He went on to direct a film version of “Don’t Play Us Cheap!”
His filmmaking credits also include “Identity Crisis,” which starred his son Mario, and “Posse,” in which he co-starred with his son.
Mario also adapted his father’s novel about the growth of the Black Panther Party into 1995 film “Panther,” and the younger Van Peebles paid homage to his dad in 2003’s “Baadasssss.”
Melvin was also the subject of the documentary “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),” and appeared in the movies “Jaws: The Revenge,” “Boomerang,” “Last Action Hero,” and “The Hebrew Hammer.” His TV credits include “All My Children,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Girlfriends.”
He wrote a string of novels and books, including “Bold Money,” which advised readers how to trade stock options.
Among his many accolades, Melvin picked up a Cinema Vanguard Award and a Special Achievement Award from the African-American Film Critics Association, a Daytime Emmy, a Gotham Tribute Award, the Humanitas Prize, and a NAACP Image Award.