Melvin Van Peebles, groundbreaking filmmaker, actor and novelist, dies at 89

Karu F. Daniels, New York Daily News on

Published in Entertainment News

NEW YORK — The Godfather of Black Cinema has died.

Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker known for writing, co-producing, scoring, editing and starring in the 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan.

His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films confirmed his death in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

Son Mario Van Peebles followed in his father’s footsteps, directing films such as “New Jack City.”

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario said in a statement. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”


A true Renaissance man, Van Peebles — who influenced a younger generation of Black filmmakers including Spike Lee and John Singleton — was a novelist, playwright, songwriter, musician and painter.

His most famous work — which some consider as part of the Blaxploitation genre — was made on quickly on a shoestring budget.

Long before Tyler Perry became a Hollywood kingpin for his record-breaking pace of producing films and television movies with a very limited means, “Sweetback" was made in 19 days for a reported $500,000.

The film, about a poor Black man fleeing from the white police authorities, became an instant hit, reportedly raking in more than $10 million at the box office. With a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, Van Peebles raised his own financing for the 97-minute drama, considered the highest-grossing independent film in history at the time.

Born in 1932 the son of a tailor, the Chicago native graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1953 and then served in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge, he worked as a portrait painter in Mexico, then worked as a cable car grip man in San Francisco.

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