trillian_stars said that when I met him, I had to call him Chevalier Van Peebles because he'd been knighted in France. And he was knighted in France. Back when he started trying to make films in America in the 1960's and ran into the problems that a young, black filmmaker inevitably runs into in the U.S. Melvin heard that France paid its artists, as long as they wrote in French. So he packed his bags, moved to France and started making movies in French. And he was successful. And they knighted him.
When he opened the door of his apartment in a ritzy New York neighborhood I said "Hello Chevalier Van Peebles," and he waved me in with a cigar. I was there to photograph a cover for the Philadelphia weekly, written by Michael Gonzalez about how the badass filmmaker was still very badass and had a new band.
We bonded over running, something we'd both started in our 40's, and art, and movies.
I eventually asked where he kept his suit of armor and he showed me his knighthood, he kept it in the closet. Like everybody in New York does.
I took photos, Michael interviewed, the band played. You meet a lot of people as a photographer and most of them you photograph and you leave and later you have the photos. Melvin was one of those rare people who turned into a friend. He loved what he did, and he loved that he was able to use his cache to help other people.
He called a few weeks later and suggested that he and the band should crash at my house while they were in Philly. Which sounded like a tremendous idea. I took Melvin to our local diner where he tried politely, though legitimately, to pick up the 20 year old waitress for the duration of our brunch.
Melvin watched the movie that trillian_stars had just made, A Doll's House drank a couple of bottles of wine with a cat on his lap and told us stories of Hollywood. The one that sticks in my mind is that when he was making Watermelon Man, (his breakthrough 1970 comedy about a racist white guy who wakes up one morning to discover he's Black,) Columbia Pictures wanted him to cast a white actor to play the role in blackface. Melvin said "why should someone be in makeup for 90% of the movie? Why don't I cast a black actor to wear whiteface for 12 minutes of screen time? And the studio executive twisted his face and said "Can a Black actor do that?!" Melvin said (to us) "They always think that the prince can play the pauper but that the pauper can never play the prince."
The film was a success but Melvin had enough of that and set out on his own where he wouldn't have to listen to people like that. He spent the rest of his life in indie cinema and was a huge inspiration to me in college. The thing I learned from him when I was 20 was that it's better to do something not as polished if you don't have to ask people you don't respect for money. It's been a guiding light of nearly ever creative project I've undertaken since then. Melvin found his own money, he found his own cast -- he wrote, he directed, he acted and he was a success. At a time when Hollywood thought that nobody would go to see a movie with a largely Black cast and a Black hero who fights a corrupt police force and wins, Melvin helped break open Hollywood like a teapot.
Another of the things I found remarkable about him was just how kind he was and pleasant to be around.
A few months after the magazine came out, I got a call from editor Stephen Segal saying that we'd been nominated for two Keystone Press awards, one for my cover photo, and one for his layout of the article. (We won both of them. I keep the award on my desk and a giant copy of the photo on the wall in our living room.)
Right at this very moment, there's an unsent letter to him on our mail table that I keep thinking I need to put a stamp on that.
If you have a letter like that on your mail table, send it tomorrow.
Mikel Banks, Jared Nickerson, Bruce Mack, André Lassalle, Chris Eddelton, and especially Paula Henderson, my heart is with you today.