Directed by Mario Van Peebles, starring Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, TK Carter, Ossie Davis, Terry Crews, David Alan Grier, Nia Long, Rainn Wilson, Paul Rodriguez, Saul Rubinek, Vincent Schiavelli, Khleo Thomas and Sally Struthers.
Inspired by the legend of his father, whose groundbreaking 1971 independent film 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' took film-making to a new level and gave rise to the 'Blaxploitation' genre, Mario Van Peebles' 'Baadasssss' chronicles a time when a racial divide was blatantly evident in Hollywood movie production and recounts one man's struggle to change the status quo.
Melvin Van Peebles is noted in history as one of the forerunners in a movement that demanded that black actors, directors and crew be given the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Becoming obsessed with how Hollywood portrayed blacks and minority groups, Van Peebles set about financing and making a film which would go on to be as good as banned across the United States, given an 'X' rating (using the famous tagline "Rated 'X' by an all-white jury") for its bold subject matter and violent depiction of racial hatred and police corruption at the height of the Black Panther movement.
In 'Baadasssss!', his son Mario traces this struggle to represent a largely silent people and bring about change in the film industry. Part documentary, with flashbacks and uneasy narration, 'Baadasssss!' is a brutally passionate retelling that is tinged with bitterness for all its honesty. The fact that Mario Van Peebles steps up to the role of his father Melvin in no small way heightens the impact of the movie, particularly in the recounting of a scene from the original movie where a seemingly crazed Melvin forces his young son to take part in a sex scene for his film.
While the movie presents more of the grimness than the triumph, many of characters Melvin Van Peebles encountered during his one-man crusade are aptly captured by the ensemble cast, which includes the late Ossie Davis (playing Melvin's father) and Bill Cosby (as himself in retrospective interviews). Rainn Wilson too turns in an impressive performance as Melvin's witty hippie friend and collaborator Bill Harris. Every detail about how the film was conceived and brought to fruition - including the pretence that he was making a pornographic movie, leaving his cast in jail for a weekend and losing the sight in one of his eyes from sheer over-working – developing a real sense of the person that was its director.
Essentially, what 'Baadasssss!' captures is the very human drive behind Melvin Van Peebles' need to succeed and his subsequent, if passing, destruction of the bonds closest to him, in the pursuit of one ideal. It is clear that what etched Van Peebles' name in the history books is that same self-mindedness that scarred those in the path to his achievement.
A clearly passionate retelling of the utter obsession that drove a man to tear down barriers of racial intolerance and stereotypes, 'Baadasssss!' is tough, if thought-provoking, viewing.