Tonight: A Documentary on Melvin Van Peebles

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How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) is premiering on the Independent Film Channel at 9 p.m. tonight. It’s a biographical documentary on Melvin Van Peebles, who grandfathered blaxspoitation films with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song in 1971, and has created 11 other films and seven plays in his career.

This film is a fascinating look at the indomitable creative force who pulled off Sweet Sweetback all on his own, as producer, director, writer, financier, and actor. Even though he could open the show in only two theaters, it grossed more than $10 million, more than any independent film at that time.

“I wanted a movie that black people could walk out of standing tall,” Van Peebles explains. “I didn’t see the type of movie I wanted to see so I made it myself.” How he has done so again and again, despite all odds, is what this documentary shows best.

In the making of Watermelon Man about a white guy who wakes up black one day, Van Peebles recounts that the studio wanted him to turn the man back to white in the end. But such a happy ending would have made the black experience seem like nothing but a bad dream. He half-agreed to shoot both ways, but when the producer called up asking for the white ending, Van Peebles told him, “‘Dang I forgot to shoot that.’ That’s how we ended up with it the way I wanted it.”

Van Peebles was not just a filmmaker, but also a groundbreaking artist in many genres. “There were no songs that mirrored the black experience. I felt the black experience had been hijacked musically to simply being rhythm, beat and melody, and the words were getting lost. That’s when I invented a style that used words to carry the melody.” Those songs had an early influence on rap, says Gil Scot-Heron.

Some lyrics: “Frown, you hostile/ Smile, you a Tom / Look tired, you on junk / Stumble, you drunk.”

Turning racist expectations inside out has been the essence of his best work. And maybe his sense of humor. He says he used to keep a spray-bottle of watermelon fragrance on hand for “liberal” friends. “They would walk into the office and say, ‘Gee, Mel, what’s that smell? It smells like umm…umm…cantaloupe! They were too afraid to say ‘watermelon.'” He provokes you to think, hoping you’ll eventually think differently.

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