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.