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Melvin Van Peebles: ‘Godfather of black cinema’ dies at 89

Pioneering filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, dubbed the “godfather of black cinema”, has died aged 89, with directors Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins leading the tributes.

Van Peebles, famous for 1970s films including Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, died at home in New York on Tuesday.

A family statement paid tribute to his “relentless innovation”.

Oscar-winner Lee said: “Damn, we have lost another giant!”
Van Peebles’ son and long-time creative collaborator, actor Mario Van Peebles, said: “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.”

He made the comedy Watermelon Man in 1970 comedy, about a white, racist 60s-era insurance salesman who wakes up to find he is black.

Van Peebles’ breakthrough came with a year later with Sweetback, a Blaxploitation film about of a black man trying to escape white police officers – it was the highest grossing independent film in history at the time.

The director said all films up until then had been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority, and the film became required viewing for members of the Black Panther political group.

The filmmaker’s death was announced in a joint statement from his family, The Criterion Collection of prestige movies and art house distributor Janus Films.

They described his “unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy”, adding he made “made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music”.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight, said: “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED.”

Ava DuVernay, whose films and TV shows include Selma and When They See Us, quoted Van Peebles in her tribute, which said: “You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework you have.”
“I didn’t even know I had a legacy,” Van Peebles told the New York Times in a 2010 interview. “I do what I want to do.”

Chicago-born Melvin Peebles graduated with a degree in literature and added the Van to his name after studying with the Dutch National Theatre, following a short stint with the US Air Force. He also worked as artist, writer, director, musician and novelist and studied astronomy.

His first film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, was about a Black US soldier who is demoted for fraternising with a white girl in France, which helped him get noticed in Hollywood. Columbia Pictures then signed him to direct Watermelon Man.

After his film successes he hit Broadway, writing and where he wrote and produced the Tony-award nominated musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.

In the 80s, he turned to Wall Street where he worked as an options trader on the stock market, but went on to notch up a further 17 directing credits and 18 writing credits during his long career, which also included 43 acting credits.