Fugitive manhood in Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.

The notion of fugitivity in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song will be the topic of this brief response, mostly because the film’s preoccupation with the condition of the Black man in many ways necessitates its many allusions to enslavement and fugitivity. The representation of flight in the film intimates a reappropriation of the pseudoscientific terminology of drapetomania, insofar that Sweetback’s flight for the Mexican border is motivated by the corruption of the society around him and his fundamental nonbeing therein. Yet, the fugue state of Sweetback’s flight nevertheless harkens back to cyclic objectification he faces as a Black man in a violent, anti-Black society. Fugitivity functions in the film therefore along the axes of the flight from objectification and the inevitably of reification.

The film juts in and out of linear time, beginning and ending with sequences of Sweetback’s flight from thingification.

James Ford describes fugitivity as the “artful escape of objectification” wherein the Black person attempts to avoid the process through which they are reverted back into the position of the slave as commodity and as object. The fugitive flees from ontological thingifcation (chosification) insofar that one’s social being is always marked by the desire for hegemony to reinstate an allegedly circumscribed and innate nonbeing. Sweetback’s flight therefore aligns with a discourse on fugitivity insofar that his social ontology is underlined by his inability to passively “be” in a society which has completely determined his social and ontological roles. The process of his specific thingification operates most significantly and spectacularly along the axes of sexual violence. From the very moment we are introduced to Sweetback, our gaze is cast in the light of sexual desire. The sex workers who take care of him watch over him as a young teenager with hungry expressions of longing and desire for the  young child. The film begins with these women, staring at something just off screen with soft expressions, only to pan to the dirty young child, hungrily eating a bowl of stew set in front of him by one of the denizens of the brothel. Sweetback is unaware of the women’s gazes, is far more preoccupied with eating than he is with being fetishized by their gazes. Not three minutes into the film, one of the women accosts him. Atop her, his naked juvenile body contrasted by the naked maturity of his assaulter, Sweetback evolves from a motionless, interrupted boy into a motionless, interrupted man. From the sequence, it can be intimated that the woman continually abuses Sweetback from his childhood into his adolescence, and the trauma attached to this history follows him, serving as the object from which fugitivity delivers restitution.

The opening sequences of the film center around Sweetback’s coming-of-age as the product of repeated sexual abuse.

From a young age, Sweetback’s social ontology has existed in relation to sexual labor and abuse. The story only really begins when the arc of his prior life is severed by the events of his interrogation, self-liberation and subsequent fugitivity. Up until that moment, Sweetback has existed only as an object, as a walking phallus. The sex show in which he is a participant is but one demonstration of a role into which he has been thrust as Black man qua phallus. The film’s disjointed temporality intimates Sweetback’s interrupted psychic state, its montages of flight allowing us to enter, if but briefly and vaguely, the inner conscience of a man in perpetual flight. Although the film is framed around fleeing “the Man,” represented most vigorously as the mostly-white Southern California police, the film’s initial sequences nevertheless highlight the means by which Sweetback’s thingification began before his encounters with the police, that his troubled psychology has roots in his childhood sexual traumas. The first of many instances of reification in his life, the opening sequences of the film are not disposable at all, but contribute to the Sweetback’s fugitive desire for freedom.

Van Peebles does not shy away from reminding the viewer that Sweetback’s flight is reminiscent of the fugitivity of runaway slaves. The film’s dedication to “all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man” is placed over a clip of Sweetback in flight, implying fugitivity as the existential condition of “having enough of the Man.”  In many ways, Samuel Cartwright, the architect of the notion of “drapetomania,” a mythical illness that compelled enslaved people to flee their captors, was correct in his assertion that the desire for flight was something essential to the condition of the Black socially dead slave. Fugitivity, although not a disease so much as an embodied experience, nevertheless is predicated by a desire for a freedom fundamentally denied on the case of one’s social nonbeing. One must have knowledge of themselves as a living dead for them to have the desire for a freedom legally unattainable – one must know oneself as a socially constructed entity, one must know the very grammar of one’s being (ontology). Sweetback is a fugitive because he is attempting to escape the process of being put back into the box of being nothing more than a phallus to be used or a black person to be abused. It is for this reason that Sweetback can never return. The flight to Mexico (the veritable maroon community of the victims of American racial hegemony) instead of the return to the brothel is smart (for they would have been able to find him at the brothel) but also necessary for his own liberation. To return to the site of his abuse is to seek refuge from one kind of objectification (that of being turned into the nigger) at the site of another (that of being turned into the phallus or the mandingo). To escape objectification, the only recourse is to escape the hegemonic structures which produce and permit Sweetback’s depersonalization – the United States. The police’s blatant disregard for the wellbeing of Black subjects underlines Sweetback’s desire for flight, yes, but his frequent abuse and objectification by women also pushes him away. We are never given any intimation that Sweetback is even attracted to women, for all of his sexual encounters in the film involve coercion.

Finally, the representation of anonymized identity in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song deserves some attention. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in these sequences, where the character Baby Suggs describes the ossification of her memories as the result of the reoccurring dispossession of her children. She forgets most of them, besides the ones she had the fortune to raise herself, remembering only small details of them, but not even their names. The representation of Sweetback’s “mother,” intimates a similar historical discourse on the deprivation of enslaved women’s children, the likes of which leads to the omission of memory and the anonymization of identity.  The name Sweetback is the only name we have for the protagonist, the name Leroy, curiously meaning “the king,” having little significance outside of these instances. His “mother” ‘s lapse of memory is meaningful not only because of its invocation of enslavement, but also because of the way the scene is constructed in order to intimate the madness which the trauma of continued dispossession can wreak on a person. She repeats the same line over in order to hint at her attempts at remembrance, the likes of which has been fundamentally interrupted by a specific kind of lived trauma of deprivation.

In short, the discourses on fugitivity and Black social ontology offer a rich array of tools for picking apart the experimental filmography of one of African-America’s seminal films. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is complex, however, because the age-old rhetoric which have constructed Black freedom ideologies are rewritten, perhaps, by the film’s representations of sexual violence and trauma. This rewriting does not throw the politics of the film into question so much as it attempts to highlight the specificities of Black manhood in a society constructed to dehumanize you not as Black and man, but as both all at once. Sweetback’s violence is not the result of one isolated feature of his combined spoiled identity, but is inherently intersectional, a knot which cannot be undone, and which requires, perhaps, specific tools to fully analyze its complexities. The film’s focus on flight perhaps points towards discourses on fugitivity as a way for better understanding the praxis of historical remediation and restitution.

For more on fugitivity, I suggest the following readings:

  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America / c by Saidiya V. Hartman. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Hesse, Barnor. “Escaping Liberty: Western Hegemony, Black Fugitivity.” Political Theory, vol. 42, no. 3, 2014, pp. 288–313. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24571402.
  • Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2008. library.yale.edu Library Catalog, http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780816656639.
  • Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Patterson, Orlando (March 1985). Slavery and Social
  • Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Works Cited

 

Ford, James Edward. “Introduction.” Black Camera, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 110–14. JSTOR, doi:10.2979/blackcamera.7.1.110.

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