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Aside from being a runner, Melvin's been a lot of other things in his 81 years on Earth. Long before he was a celebrated filmmaker and Knight in the French Legion of Honor, he was a cable car operator in San Francisco -- until he published a short story and his employers began to think he was a bit too intellectual for their tastes so he moved to France, taught himself the language and became a French writer and eventually a hotshot French film director. That's when America started to take notice. He returned, to Hollywood, and directed Watermelon Man, a 1970 film about a racist who wakes up one morning to find himself suddenly and inexplicably black. This too was fraught with difficulty. The studio wanted Melvin to hire a white actor and have him play the role in blackface. "Why not hire a black actor and have him do the first five minutes of the film in whiteface?" Melvin asked. A long pause. "Can that be done?" they wanted to know. "People always believe the king can play the pauper, but the pauper can't play the king," Melvin said.
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After Watermelon Man Melvin wanted to make a serious movie about race in America, where a black man fights a corrupt police force and wins, but the studios wouldn't have any of it so Melvin did it on his own, with his own money and a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby he made Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song on a shoestring budget, working twenty hour days. Without the money to hire a leading man, Melvin played the part himself and people flocked to see it. Hollywood realized that there was money to be made in black audiences, but Melvin had moved on. He wrote novels, he made records, he became a Wall Street trader (and wrote a book), he made art, he wrote plays. And he ran.
Today he runs four or ten miles a day. "It's a pain in the ass," he tells me, "but if you want to say Get back motherfucker, you have to be able to back it up." The people who run in Melvin's movies aren't running for recreation, they're running because people want to kill them. Sweetback runs through Los Angeles and into Mexico with helicopters chasing him.
Melvin has a jazz band now, Laxative, made up of members of the band Burnt Sugar (watch Burnt Sugar play here) and they're on tour, which is how I ended up photographing him for the cover of the Philadelphia Weekly and how I ended up in his Manhattan apartment with Michael Gonzales who wrote the article. (You can follow Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative here on Facebook.) (Side note: Wunderkind bass player Jared Nickerson was in Gods and Monsters with Jeff Buckley.)
MVP and Laxative are going to be on WRTI radio this Friday night from 10:00 until midnight, and then the next day, Saturday, they're playing at Johnny Brendas. I'm hoping I get a chance to go running with him while he's in town.
To learn more about Melvin, I recommend the 2003 film Badasssss! about the making of Sweet Sweetback where Melvin is played by his real life son, Mario Van Peebles. Also there's a great documentary about him called How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). That one's on Netflix streaming.
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