Melvin Van Peebles, Black Cinema Icon, Dead at 89

Famed filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, known for notable films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man, died Tuesday in his Manhattan home, Deadline reports. He was 89 years old. Van Peebles' son Mario confirmed the news in a statement.

"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 colonizer's mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people," Mario Van Peebles said. 

Janus Films and Criterion Collection also responded to the news with a tribute on Twitter.  "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," the company tweeted. 

Melvin Van Peebles was born on August 21, 1932 in Chicago. He started his career by creating short films before going on to write and direct feature projects like 1967's The Story of a Three-Day Pass. The story follows the tale of a Black GI who gets demoted because of his affair with a white shop clerk in Paris. The next movie he picked up was Watermelon Man (1970). Based on a screenplay by Herman Raugher, the film is about a white bigot who looks in the mirror one day to find his pigment has changed. 

He's likely most recognized for writing, directing, producing and starring in his 1971 blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The movie, which was chosen to join the Library of Congress' National Film Registry last year, focuses on an orphan who was raised in a brothel. The upbringing teaches him how to save himself from compromising positions and prepares him to later take on racism in Los Angeles.

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The filmmaker's death was felt among many within the film community. Director Ava DuVernay responded to the news sharing a quote from the prolific writer and director. "'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.' ― the iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer and sage Melvin Van Peebles, who has gone home at the age of 89," she tweeted.