How Air Force Vet Melvin Van Peebles Changed Hollywood Forever

Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed and starred in "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song." (Criterion)

Melvin Van Peebles was a fierce, complicated and iconoclastic filmmaker who didn’t release a lot of films in his life, but the ones he did complete had an outsized impact on the world. Van Peebles died on Sept. 21, 2021, at the age of 89.

Van Peebles was born in Chicago in 1932 and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in English. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and spent three years serving as a navigator and bombardier in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command.

After he left the Air Force, he moved to Mexico to work as a portrait painter and married the German-born actress and photographer Maria Marx there. Melvin Van Peebles and Marx are the parents of actor and director Mario Van Peebles. Mario is known for acting in movies like “Heartbreak Ridge” and “New Jack City” and has enjoyed a successful career directing television episodes for “Law & Order,” “Empire,” “NCIS” and “Nashville.”

Melvin Van Peebles eventually got a job as a reporter in France and published the novel “La Permission” in 1967. Ever the hustler, he used the novel to secure a grant from the French Cinema Center that allowed him to adapt the book into his debut feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.”

The Story of a Three-Day Pass” is one of the great unknown ‘60s movies. Shot in black-and-white and in a style that owed a lot to French New Wave cinema, Van Peebles follows Turner, a Black American soldier stationed in France. Recently promoted, he’s granted a pass and goes to Paris where he starts a brief romance with a French woman named Miriam. The two share a sweet weekend, but Turner’s racist commanding officer withdraws the promotion once he gets word of what the soldier was doing in Paris.

The film starred Guyanese actor Harry Baird as Turner and popular French actress Nicole Berger as Miriam. Turner went on to play a memorable role in the Michael Caine version of “The Italian Job” in 1969, but she was forced to retire from acting after he developed glaucoma and went blind. Berger’s career was cut short when she was killed in an auto accident before this movie’s release.

It’s the kind of movie that only someone who’d experienced military culture could make. Rather than make a shocking exposé, Van Peebles presents the racism as casual and matter of fact. The scenes where Turner argues with himself in a mirror are especially blunt, offering a glimpse of what was yet to come from the director.

Columbia Pictures hired Van Peebles to direct “Watermelon Man,” a comedy starring Black actor Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a bigoted White man who wakes up one morning to find that he’s turned Black. When Gerber tries to pursue his normal life, he’s confronted with the indignities that Black men faced in America circa 1970. The movie made money, and the studio offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal.

Here’s the part where things got wild.

Van Peebles turned down the offer and set out to make an unapologetically Black gangster movie called “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The movie tells the story of a Black sex-show performer who’s framed for murder by a corrupt police force. He goes on the run with the aid of some gangsters (who are more honest than the cops) and eventually escapes to Mexico.

The director also wrote the screenplay, wrote the score and starred in the movie himself. A not-yet-famous Earth, Wind and Fire recorded a soundtrack album and had their first significant hit record. There’s a lot of violence and a lot of sex on screen.

Van Peebles raised $150,000 to make the movie and distributed it himself. Audiences went wild, and the movie grossed $15.2 million, an enormous success in 1971 and one that set the director up for life.


The world changed. Studios realized that movies that appealed to a Black audience could make a lot of money. “Shaft” was almost finished as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was taking off, and the studio upped its marketing budget for “Shaft” and saw enormous success. “Superfly” and a new genre of violent, low-budget movies dubbed “Blaxploitation” soon followed.

Van Peebles’ success inspired Tom Laughlin to buy back his 1971 movie “Billy Jack” from Warner Bros. and re-release it following the “Sweetback” model in 1973. Audiences wanted movies that the studios didn’t want to make, and the independent film movement in America took off.

Van Peebles never made that kind of impact again, but he’d already changed the world. He continued to write novels and worked as both actor and co-director with his son Mario on several movies. He began exhibiting his paintings in art galleries. At age 80, he fronted a band called “Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative,” because the musicians “made sh*t happen.” The man never stopped with his free-spirited approach to life.

“The Story of a Three-Day Pass” should be as well-known as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Both films were released on Blu-ray this year as part of the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films box set, and as attention turns to his legacy, maybe his films will be made available for streaming.

Keep Up With the Best in Military Entertainment

Whether you're looking for news and entertainment, thinking of joining the military or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to the newsletter to have military news, updates and resources delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues