Melvin Van Peebles is like Leonardo da Vinci as an American bad-mouthed, bad-ass pioneer. He's done everything, and done it first. Releasing and marketing his own film, the hit Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, he became a trailblazing American independent producer, and before that he was the first black director to shoot in Hollywood itself. But before either of these experiences, in order to get started as a filmmaker, he had to learn French and became a New Wave French filmmaker. His little seen first feature film, La Permission (The Story of a Three Day Pass), screens on Saturday night at 92YTribeca, followed by a Q&A, and then a performance by his band Laxative ("Because I don't take no shit").
The film is a smart and playful film about a black serviceman on three-day leave who has a romance with a white French woman, and it's often considered Peebless' best. He followed up this film by inventing rap. ("Is that true?" I asked him. "Yep," he said matter-of-factly.) And later went on to become the first black trader on Wall Street. He currently splits his time among residences in New York, Los Angeles and Paris. In my visit to his 10th-floor Manhattan apartment, filled with windows and his large paintings and sculptures, he also taught me to play the piano. Since he didn't know how to read music, but composed the music to his films, he long ago devised a simple numeric system which he taught me. Within three minutes, I could play the Sweetback theme. There's nothing this man cannot do.
So it's interesting, because you're known as this trailblazing independent filmmaker, but you had to go to France to get your first feature made. So what happened? You were living in San Francisco and you'd made a few short films.
I went to Hollywood and presented my work, and I asked for a job, and they'd offer me a job as an elevator operator.
What would they say to you?
Move, nigger. [Long laughter from us both.] Nah! They wouldn't say that...
But that's what was between the lines?
It wasn't even between the lines: "Gee, I would like to be a director." "Great, we could use an elevator operator." God damn y'all! I was born at night, but not last night. But I was used to that.
I saw an old interview from when you came back to San Francisco to present La Permission, and you said of your time in America, "Oh, I got discouraged." And then you corrected yourself and said, "No, then I got evil." What did that mean? You were gonna do it any way you could?
Yeah. By any means necessary.
So then you moved to France?
No. That's when I went to my second love, and moved to Holland to get my PhD in astronomy.
Are you kidding me?
Nah. I used to be a navigator in a secret jet bomber, and was the only black man in my squadron. This shit goes on and on...
So in Holland is where your name got "Dutched", where you adopted the Van?
No, it's on my birth certificate.
Oh, I read that somewhere.
No, it's good you asked. Somewhere it says that, but that's BS. It's on my birth certificate. BUT, you gotta use what you got. When I applied they assumed I was this old Dutch descendant... but nobody asked me! I didn't speak a word of Dutch. But pretty soon, I learned to speak it.
So when you were in Holland, you heard from Henri Langlois at the French Cinémathèque?
Yeah, you've heard that phrase, God may not come when you call him, but he's right on time? Well what happened is one day in Holland I came home to a little postcard in an envelope and the postcard was from Henri Langlois. And he had heard from this guy, who I met on the boat going over from Holland, who was from here and was invited to come to France to present American independent films at the Cinematheque. So he bough one of my films.
Who was that guy, an American?
Amos Vogel was his name.
No shit. And he showed your films to Henri Langlois?
Most independent films at the time were shown in the gymnasium, and most of them were just "bleep bleep blop bleep. And I wanted to tell stories. So when Henri Langois saw my films he said, "Who is this guy? He's a genius!" So he sent me this postcard saying, why are you in Holland? You should be making films!
Ah, that's what you needed to hear!
[Eyes water with emotion.] I had been there with my wife and kids, and my wife had decided that I worked too hard. ("What the fuck, bitch? I'm studying a language and getting a PhD and working...") But she decided she needed more time. So she took the kids and left! And two weeks later I got this letter from Henri Langlois. So I hitchhiked to France.
Yeah. And then they screened my films at this private theater on the Champs-Elysees, and then said I was genius. And then—you wouldn't even put this in a movie, it's too much—all the lights went on on the Champs-Elysees. And then they kissed me, and drove off!
You were ready to start your life as a filmmaker and they just left you there...
With two wet cheeks. Empty pockets and not a word of French. Know nobody. That's how I came to France.
So then you started writing, right?
No I started begging.
You started begging. You had to beg to even be able to write.
My main songs were [belts out] "Take this Hammer...." and "La la Bamba."
And you didn't speak a word of French, but you ended up writing four novels in French!
Yep. What happened was one night, I walked into this bar and I saw a newspaper and read this story about a murder. And I started talking and said, "I don't believe that shit! Sounds fishy." I was alone and I was talking away! I had realized that I read the newspaper.
All of the sudden you realized you could read French?
Yeah, I could speak it before, but now I was reading the fucking headlines! So I said something was fishy about this. So I go to this newspaper, and I told them I thought the story about the murderer was bullshit. Because I could speak French fluently. No, not French. Patois or slang or whatever. I was around beggars all day. "No no man, You know me, get off that shit." That's what I was talking in French. I talked French!
So what happened was I went to the head of this newspaper, and he said he'd make me a reporter of me, so go ahead and follow it. So I took my girlfriend, my Wednesday Girlfriend—Don't laugh. Look, I had no bread, I had a girlfriend for every day of the week. We were all poor, so I arranged that I had everybody's free day. When they had a day off, they'd come see me. Or I'd go see them, since I didn't have anywhere to live.
Girlfriend, it ain't funny. When you've got no place to bathe or something. So you'd go into these places where you could take a shower. I'd go in and wash everything I had. So then I'd have to walk until I got dry! That was a drag, you know what I mean.
Ah. Air dry?
You're walking around with all this steam coming off, like you've come out of Mars or something. And you walk fast, because you don't want to slow down till you get dry! That was some shit. Anyway... So I follow up this story. And I cracked the case! And after that, everybody started... "Mr Van Peebles." So that's what happened. So then there's a law that says a French writer can have a temporary director's card.
And through that you could get French funding, for films that were "artistically worthwhile but not commercially viable."
Yeah. That was the next step. And at that moment, Melvin the piece of shit was suddenly, "Melvin! How are you, buddy?"
So you wrote it specifically for French funding, right? You said it was a flattering to the French?
It was a fucking French fairytale! This black guy that's very race-conscious, but there's no racism in France. Bullshit. But the French love to see themselves that way.
But you were smart, you did it for the funding. But it's subtle, too. The way he's rewarded for being "A good black man", for being a "trustworthy."
Exactly. I was born at night but... Well what happened was one day these people wanted me to meet someone and introduced me to this very tall, elegant black man. "Oh you must know each other!" I don't know this guy, but he was very nice. And he asked what I did, and I told him I'm a writer but I'm working on this movie. "Oh, a documentary?" "No, it's got a story." "Oh how long is your film? 30 minutes?" "No it's a feature." "You're doing a feature film? Who's it for? Columbia or..." "No, it's a French film." This guy's eyes glaze over, and he goes, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You're making a French feature?" And so I ask him what he did, and he was the curator of the San Francisco International Film Festival. So he asked me if it could be ready by October. And I asked him, is a pig's ass pork? Is the Pope Catholic? It WILL be ready. I will have the motherfucker ready.
So you went back to San Francisco, where you had been living before you moved to Europe, as the French delegate!
Yeah. I went there the same year as Agnes Varda. And the French, they knew what they were doing, also.
Because they knew it was going to be embarrassing that the only black filmmaker, was from France.
You don't mean the literal language but reaching the people?
Yes, I couldn't imagine you being limited to always make movies that were "artistically worthwhile but not commercially viable." But when you were in France, did you meet any French New Wave filmmakers?
I didn't know any of them.
Did you see a lot of movies, though?
No. Let me ask you something. If you had to choose between a movie or a croissant, what would you choose? Ok!
But you were kind of working in a New Wave style...
I don't know what a New Wave style is. That's some shit.