To certain cognoscenti, Melvin Van Peebles is the progenitor of black-made cinema, the guy who made the hardass Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song back in 1971. But Van Peebles has done much more, from writing novels (in French) to being a successful Wall Street trader. Several years ago former magazine editor Joe Angio decided to make a film about Melvin, How to Eat Watermelon In White Company (and Enjoy It) and enlisted his aid along the way.
The L Magazine: When you first envisioned the project did you think it was going to take on the life it did?
Joe Angio: Never in a million years. From the time I first really started researching Melvin’s life it was back in late ‘95. I was at Vibe Magazine and we didn’t have the luxury of the Internet as we do now. So I spent a lot of time at the New York Performing Arts library. Slowly but surely I was accumulating this large glossary of Melvin. Then life happened and I took another magazine job and it wasn’t until a couple of years later I was telling my friend Michael Solomon that I wanted to do this film on Melvin. And he said that he knew Melvin really well. They had worked together on some film festivals — that was really when Michael got involved.
It was in March 1998 when we did our first shoot, when Melvin was putting his Road Kill band project together. It was a cabaret-jazz combo. I was like, “great!” I knew we got our ending. A year later, Melvin gives me a call and he says he’s shooting a new movie and he’s adapting one of his French books and we’re shooting in France. So then that was our ending. Then Michael and I went off to France and shot him shooting there. Then a year later Melvin gets an award from the French government, the Legion of Honor from France. Then that was our ending. Then two years later he’s a part of the big multimedia project that you see in the film, and then that was our ending. So it was mostly because Melvin kept doing interesting things that kept us shooting. Right at the beginning of the film I just started working at New York Times weekly magazine. So we shot in bits and parts over the course of seven years, mostly because of Melvin’s schedule.
The L: Did you ever just want it to end?
Melvin Van Peebles: It never crossed my mind one way or the other. It wasn’t my job. Michael and Joe would talk to me about what I was doing and I’d tell them what I was doing next. I was just happy to keep them abreast of what I was doing. If it was interesting, then great. I was just very pleased when I saw the movie. I was feeling a little lonely not having these guys following me around. What can I say?
JA: That’s a lie. When he saw me today not with a camera in my hand he was like “thank God.” (laughs)
The L: Did you find him making this movie about you a little bit like therapy?
MP: Not at all. I’m not very reflective. If they asked me a question I’d answer it. When I saw the finished movie, I was like, “ooh I haven’t seen so and so in so many years,” or “oh I forgot about that.” They did a magnificent job of research. For example the title comes from an old article I wrote in 1957 or ‘58. A great deal of research went into those things. Old girlfriends. And old partners. It was extremely interesting for me. I didn’t use it as that. I just used it as we are talking now.
JA: There were no restrictions. The only thing Melvin said on the onset is that I’ll do this, I’ll help you with names of people but don’t ask me to call them. So get me involved in trying to track these people down.
The L: Who was the hardest to track down?
JA: The hardest to pin down was Spike Lee, and he agreed in 1998 to do it. He was the last guy we shot. He’s got nine million things going on as well. What was really fun was seeking out the footage we stumbled onto. There was this one French documentary on Melvin in 1965. We knew we had this great foundation there but then we found the book program about Melvin’s first book. We were thunderstruck when we found that. Then a few years into the shooting Melvin has this treasure of all this stuff he worked on earlier. Then there is this one show that Melvin did called Kicking to Science where he tells his life story. And I was like Melvin were you ever going to tell me about this? There were great things in that film.
The L: Were there things in the film that make you rediscover things you’ve done?
MP: Of course. It was a lot of fun seeing old films and old projects, old ideas. I don’t tend to, even as forgetful as I am, to forget old projects. But it’s great to see them again. ‘Oh wow!’ When I did it. It’s like looking at your old high school yearbook. ‘Whoa!’
JA: One of the most gratifying moments since the film has been done, is when we showed it for the first night at the Los Angeles film festival. Mario [Van Peebles, his son] sat next to me. So I was nervous. I knew Melvin was supportive and he was down with it but [I didn’t know how Mario was going to react] the whole time he kept hitting me and tried to ask me where I found that stuff. The first thing he said at the end was where did you find this stuff? I thought those stories were lies but you corroborated it.
MP: It was like Mario was saying afterwards. He said you know dad, the movie is like Big Fish. It really happened! (laughs)
JA: In the part where we’re talking about Melvin’s Don Juan side, Megan was the one who said that this is my dad. You’re Monday night. Don’t call on Tuesday or Wednesday. They had an understanding and were comfortable with the situation and how it is.
The L: Did it stimulate new creative juices for you?
MP: Perhaps oddly enough, I never get offers. I’m starting another film now, just like if I’m doing a Broadway show or a new album or anything else. People tend to, at least the people who speak of financing anyway, tend to demand that I repeat the last success and the last style. For example, Sweet Back. It has a part 2 and a part 3. People have come to me at various times and imposed their versions of 2 and 3 and want to finance it. But it’s not where I think it should go. What’s interesting is the non-artists can only see what is or what was. When I tell them what I’m going to do they go ‘ahh!’ But if I have some person who is one they say, “jeez.” But when I say they ain’t supposed to die a natural death they go “ahh!” When I said there was a new music I wanted to invent a music called Rap they go ‘ahhh!’ I would love to have partners. I would love to have someone come and say ‘oh you’re doing something? How can we get involved?’ I was reading an article about Rauschenberg the other day and how he would pick up pieces and he would see them one way and everyone would go ‘Ahh!’ Its typical if you prepare to stay in the last current of success your can get help.
The L: How do you decide what to do next?
MP: My muse makes that decision I don’t. My muse coupled with market forces makes that decision. I enjoy it all. Which is more difficult? They’re all the same. I have this secret I’m reluctant to give it away and since it’s you and we’re old buddies I’ll tell you. I have the paper delivered to me in the morning and I glance at the obituary column. If I’m not there I get up.
The L: When you think about your life, do you think anything has changed or evolved?
MP: Let’s call a spade a spade. No pun intended. I’m the Rosa Parks of modern black cinema. None of this would have happened. I took major risks and I did it. Duh. But I knew that. I knew I might not make it but golly I did. I have no qualms about basking, I deserve it.