Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin "Block"[1] Van Peebles (born August 21, 1932) is an American actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist and composer.

Melvin Van Peebles
Van Peebles in December 2015
Melvin Peebles

(1932-08-21) August 21, 1932
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Other namesBrer Soul, Block
OccupationActor, director, screenwriter, playwright, composer
Years active1955–present
Spouse(s)Maria Marx
ChildrenMario Van Peebles

He is most famous for creating (and starring in) the acclaimed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which heralded a new era of black-focused films. He is the father of actor and director Mario Van Peebles.

Early life

Born Melvin Peebles,[2] in Chicago, Illinois, to a black tailor, he joined the Air Force in 1954, thirteen days after graduating with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University, staying for three and a half years in the Force.[3] He married the German actress and photographer, Maria Marx. They lived in Mexico for a brief period, where he painted portraits, before coming back to the United States, where he worked as a cable car gripman in San Francisco.[3]


Melvin Van Peebles began writing about his experiences as a cable car gripman. His first book, The Big Heart, credited to Melvin Van, evolved from a small article and series of photographs.[3]

According to Van Peebles, a passenger suggested that he should become a filmmaker. Van Peebles shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick in 1957, and made two more short films during the same period. About these films, Van Peebles says: "I thought they were features. Each one turned out to be eleven minutes long. I was trying to do features. I knew nothing." As he learned more about the filmmaking process, he found out that "I could make a feature for five hundred dollars. That was the cost of ninety minutes of film. I didn't know a thing about shooting a film sixteen to one or ten to one or none of that shit. Then I forgot you had to develop film. And I didn't know you needed a work print. All I can say is that after I did one thing he would say, 'Well, aren't you gonna put sound on it?' and I would go, 'Oh shit!' That's all I could say."[3]

After Peebles completed his first short films, he took them with him to Hollywood to try to find work, but was unable to find anyone who wanted to hire him as a director. In New York City, he met a man who saw his films and wanted to screen them in France. In 1959 the family went to the Netherlands, where he worked for the Dutch National Theater. In the Netherlands, Peebles added the "Van" to his name.[2] The marriage dissolved, his wife and children went back to America, and Peebles was invited to Paris by Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, on the strength of his short films. He learned French, and was hired to translate MAD into French. He began to write plays in French, utilizing the sprechgesang form of songwriting, where the lyrics were spoken over the music. This style carried over to Van Peebles' debut album, Brer Soul.[3]

Van Peebles published four novels and one story collection in French and made another short film, Cinq cent balles (1965). Van Peebles made his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) (1968), which caught the attention of Hollywood producers who mistook him for a French auteur.[4] Van Peebles's first Hollywood film was the 1970 Columbia Pictures comedy Watermelon Man, written by Herman Raucher. The movie tells the story of a casually racist white man who suddenly wakes up black and finds himself alienated from his friends, family and job. In 1970 Van Peebles was also to direct filming of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival, which was banned by court injunction.

After Watermelon Man, Van Peebles became determined to have complete control over his next production, which became the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), privately funded with his own money, and in part by a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby. Van Peebles not only directed, scripted, and edited the film, but wrote the score and directed the marketing campaign. The film, which in the end grossed $10 million, was, among many others, acclaimed by the Black Panthers for its political resonance with the black struggle. His son Mario's 2003 film BAADASSSSS! tells the story behind the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; father and son presented the film together as the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2004.

In the 1980s, Van Peebles became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange while continuing to work in theater and film.[5][6]

In 1995, he co-starred in the Tony Randel' American live-action version of Japanese manga Fist of the North Star, alongside Gary Daniels, Costas Mandylor, Chris Penn, Isako Washio Malcolm McDowell, Downtown Julie Brown, Dante Basco, Tracey Walter, Clint Howard, Tony Halme, and Big Van Vader.

In 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary entitled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). Also in 2005, Van Peebles was the subject of the documentary Unstoppable, which also featured Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks in the same room. It was moderated by Warrington Hudlin.[7]

In 2005, it was announced that Van Peebles would collaborate with Madlib for a proposed double album titled Brer Soul Meets Quasimoto. However, nothing has been said about this project since it was announced.[8]

In 2008, Van Peebles completed the film Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, which was the Closing Night selection for Maryland Film Festival 2008, and appeared on All My Children as Melvin Woods, the father of Samuel Woods, a character portrayed by his son, Mario.[9][10]

In 2009, Van Peebles became involved with a project to adapt Sweet Sweetback into a musical.[11] A preliminary version of this was staged at the Apollo on April 25–26, 2009. As well, he wrote and performed in a stage musical, Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies, which featured some of his previous songs as well as some new material.[12][13]

In 2011, Van Peebles started doing shows in NYC with members of Burnt Sugar, under the name Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative.[14] Van Peebles has said that the band is called Laxative because they "make shit happen".[15] At least one of their shows have been listed as "must-sees" by a blogger from Time Out New York.[16] In November, 2011, Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative performed his song "Love, That's America" at Zebulon Cafe Concert, two weeks after the venue showed the original video for this song involving Occupy Wall Street footage,[17] which was uploaded to YouTube in October 2011.[18]

On August 21, 2012, he distributed a new album, on vinyl only, called Nahh... Nahh Mofo.[19][20][21][22] This album was distributed at his birthday celebration at Film Forum.[23] On November 10, 2012, he released a video for the song Lilly Done the Zampoughi Every Time I Pulled Her Coattail to go with the album,[24][25] which was announced on his Facebook page.[26]

On May 5, 2013, he returned to the Film Forum for a screening of The Kid (1921) and was a judge at the Charlie Chaplin Dress-Alike Contest that was after the screening. He wore a bowler hat and baggy pants in honor of Chaplin.

In September 2013, Van Peebles made his public debut as a visual artist, as a part of a gallery featured called "eMerge 2.0: Melvin Van Peebles & Artists on the Cusp".[27] It features "Ex-Voto Monochrome (A Ghetto Mother's Prayer)", one of many pieces of art he created to be on display in his home.

In 2017, a short film directed by Alain Rimbert entitled Methane Momma featured Van Peebles and his narration of poetic work with accompaniment of music by The Heliocentrics.[28][29][30]

In 2019, Burnt Sugar presented the film Sweetback in Brooklyn while playing their own interpretation of the soundtrack. Van Peebles appeared at the presentation.[31]


  • (As "Melvin Van".) The Big Heart. San Francisco: Fearon, 1957. With photographs by Ruth Bernhard, a book about life on San Francisco's cable cars. "A cable car is a big heart with people for blood. The people pump on and off if you think of it like that it is pretty simple" (p. 21).
  • Un Ours pour le F.B.I. (1964); A Bear for the F.B.I. Trident, 1968.
  • Un Américain en enfer (1965); The True American. Doubleday, 1976.
  • Le Chinois du XIV (1966). (short stories)
  • La Fête à Harlem (Harlem Party) (1967). (novel)
  • La Permission, (1967)
  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Lancer Books, New York 1971.
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. Bantam, New York 1973.[32]
  • Don't Play Us Cheap: A Harlem Party. Bantam Books, New York 1973.
  • Just an Old Sweet Song. Ballantine, New York 1976.
  • Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market. Warner Books, New York 1986, ISBN 0-446-51340-7 (nonfiction)
  • Melvin and (his son) Mario Van Peebles: No Identity Crisis. A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, New York 1990
  • Panther. Thunder's Mouth Press. 1995.[33]


As director

Other writing credits

As himself

  • Unstoppable (2005)
  • How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (2005)

Other acting-only credits



Studio albums

Soundtrack albums

See also

  • Works by Melvin Van Peebles


  1. Van Peebles, Melvin; Van Peebles, Mario (1990). No Identity Crisis: A Father and Son's Own Story of Working Together. New York: Fireside. ISBN 0-671-67358-0. OCLC 21226104.
  2. Greasley, Philip A. (ed.) Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume 1: The Authors. "Melvin Van Peebles", p. 505. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  3. James, Darius (1995). That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury. ISBN 0-312-13192-5.
  4. View a KPIX-TV interview with Melvin Van Peebles from 1967, in which he discusses his early film career:
  5. Booker, James (1984-03-27). "James Booker's N.Y." The Washington Afro-American. p. 11. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  6. Wylie, William H. (1986-03-11). "Movie director weighs his options". The Pittsburgh Press. p. D2. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  8. "Madlib & Melvin Van Peebles – Brer Soul meets Lord Quas". 2005-10-01. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  9. Melvin Van Peebles interview from Suicide Girls
  10. Village Voice: The MVP of Black Cinema
  11. Archived May 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  12. Archived June 29, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  13. "Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies". 2009-06-22. Archived from the original on 2013-01-30. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  14. ""NYC: Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative"". Uptown. 2011-01-03. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  15. "Melvin Van Peebles With Laxative, Zebulon Cafe Concert, May 12, 2011". 2011-05-12. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  16. TONY Music (2012-01-26). "Thursday's must-see concerts". TimeOut New York. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  17. ""The winter of our discontent" – a benefit for Occupy wallstreet. Special screening, Melvin Van Peebles: LOVE, THAT'S AMERICA !!!". 2011-11-08. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  18. "Occupy Wall Street montage to the song "Love, That's America" by Melvin Van Peebles #OWS, YouTube". 2011-10-26. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  19. "WFMU RADIO: Give The Drummer Some 10/05/12". Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  20. "The cat is out of..." Facebook. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  22. Friday Mar 29th, 3:00pm. "Melvin Van Peebles Biography, Celebrity Facts and Awards". TV Guide. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  23. vagabond. "Melvin Van Peebles | #nothingtobegainedhere". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  24. "(official video) Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative – Lilly Done the Zampoughi". YouTube. 2012-11-09. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  26. "We have a new video..." Facebook. 2012-11-10. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  27. "Melvin Van Peebles Headlines a Group Art Show - The New York Times". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  28. "Methane Momma (2016)".
  29. "From The Vaults – Photos: Melvin Van Peebles Records For Heliocentrics". Now-Again Records Newsletter. 30 September 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  30. Kesh, Jonathan. "5 Cool Sci-Fi Shorts From the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival".
  32. "Aint supposed to die a natural death. (Book, 1973)". []. 2019-03-02. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  33. "Panther: A Novel - Melvin Van Peebles - Google Books". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  34. "MVP @ 80 | #nothingtobegainedhere". Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  35. "Melvin Van Peebles Biography". Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  36. "HELIOCENTRICS & MELVIN VAN PEEBLES – The Last Transmission". Rappcats. 2014-10-01. Retrieved 2019-03-22.

Further reading

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