Influential filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles dies aged 89

·4-min read
Obit Melvin Van Peebles (2018 Invision)
Obit Melvin Van Peebles (2018 Invision)

Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering director behind Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, has died. He was 89.

The father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles, it was revealed that Melvin died on Tuesday (21 September) at his home in Manhattan.

His family announced the death in a statement alongside The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.

Criterion said on behalf of his family: “We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”

The statement continued: “In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music.

“His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year.”

His son Mario added: “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?

“We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the coloniser’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Known as “The Godfather of Black cinema”, Peebles also wrote several books, plays and recorded several albums.

Melvin was best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song!, one of the most influential movies of its time.

Tributes have poured in for Melvin on social media. Filmmaker Ava Du Verney shared a quote remembering him: “You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework you have. And don’t look outside. Look inside.” She added: “the iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer and sage Melvin Van Peebles, who has gone home at the age of 89.”

One Twitter user described him as “a genius auteur who sparked a revolution in Seventies Black cinema” while another added: “The blueprint and inspiration for multiple generations of filmmakers. A whole legend.”

You can see some of the tributes here:

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