Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering African American filmmaker who is best known for his films “Watermelon Man” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” transitioned on Sept. 21, 2021, at his home in Manhattan. He was 89 years old.
The visionary filmmakers’ son, actor Mario Van Pebbles and The Peebles family announced the news in a joint statement with The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.
“We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed,” the statement read.
“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,” it added.
Eighty-nine is a tremendous age and what this cinema pioneer, Melvin Van Peebles accomplished is extraordinary. He was born Aug. 21, 1932, in Chicago, in a period in America’s history when people of color were given very few choices. What I am trying to communicate is that this filmmaker smashed glass ceilings left, right, and center. And in so doing the “impossible” his name will ring forever cemented in African American cinema immortality.
Van Peebles walked into Hollywood in 1970, with his debut film “Watermelon Man” and followed with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” in 1971. His film which tells the story of a poor African American man fleeing from white police authorities was independently funded and shot by Van Peebles before receiving a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the project.
His son, Mario Van Peebles, brought his fathers’ legacy home. “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?”
Melvin Van Peebles’s death came shortly before the 50th anniversary of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and a celebration planned by the New York Film Festival. The Criterion Collection planned a box set to be released next week called “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films.”