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.

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