Melvin Van Peebles learned the fundamentals of filmmaking on his own by self-financing three low-budget short films: Sunlight, Three Pick up Men for Herrick, and Cinq Centes Balles. Unable to find work in Hollywood, Van Peebles went to Amsterdam to study Astronomy on the G.I. Bill. While he was in Holland, he was invited by the Cinémathèque Françaiseto to screen his short films, which led to a career in France as a journalist and the opportunity to direct his first feature film, The Story of the Three Day Pass (1968), based on his novel La Permission. On winning the Critics Award at the San Francisco Film Festival, he was offered the chance to direct the Columbia Pictures comedy Watermelon Man.
Despite the attention his films received, Van Peebles had problems financing his next movie. Funding the new production with his own money (supplemented by a loan from Bill Cosby), he was vindicated when Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song became one of the most successful films of 1971, grossing over $15 million. As director, producer, writer, editor, composer, and star of the picture, Van Peebles had the freedom to make exactly the film he wanted without interference from studios. His guerrilla style of filmmaking influenced many independent filmmakers, but more importantly, this film proved that a story with a strong African-American lead character could be successful, ushering in a wave of blaxpoitation films that presented new images of African-Americans on the screen.
Van Peebles went on to direct Don’t Play us Cheap; Identity Crisis; Vroom Vroom Vroom; Gang in Blue; and Bellyful. He also directed an episode of the television series The Outer Limits and continues to write and act in movies, starring in films like Posse; Panther; Gang in Blue; and Love Kills, all directed by his son Mario Van Peebles. He reprised his Sweetback character for the blaxpoitation spoof The Hebrew Hammer; starred in the television miniseries The Shining; and appeared in television series including Homicide: Life on the Street; Dream O; In the Heat of the Night; Living Single; and Girlfriends.
Melvin Van Peebles won a Daytime Emmy and the Humanitas Prize for his CBS Schoolbreak Special: The Day They Came to Arrest the Books. He also received the Byron E. Lewis Trailblazer Award and the Best International Picture Award from the Acapulco Black Film Festival for Bellyful, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival.
Van Peebles served on the DGA’s Eastern Directors Council from 1979-1981.