A Celebration of Director Melvin Van Peebles

A Celebration of Director Melvin Van Peebles

February 12, 2022 An Eastern Region Special Projects Committee and the Eastern Diversity Steering Committee Joint Event

In honor of Black History Month, on February 12, the Eastern Region Special Projects Committee and the Eastern Diversity Steering Committee hosted the online event, Changing the Game: A Celebration of Director Melvin Van Peebles. The event commemorated the legacy of the pioneering auteur who helped champion a new wave of modern Black cinema in the 1970s and featured a conversation with Van Peebles’ son, Director Mario Van Peebles, who shared insights from his life on a panel with Directors Michael Mann, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Michael Schultz, moderated by Director Reginald Hudlin.

A DGA member since 1969, Van Peebles’s directorial credits include the feature films, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man, Don’t Play Us Cheap, Identity Crisis, Bellyful, Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha; the movie for television Gang in Blue; and episodes of The Bill Cosby Show and The Outer Limits. He was also an accomplished author, playwright and an advocate for independent filmmakers.

His seminal feature, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is credited with leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre and opened the doors to many filmmakers of color. The landmark film was recently celebrated at the New York Film Festival with a special 50th anniversary screening.

Upon learning of his passing in September 2021, DGA President Lesli Linka Glatter said, “We lost a true legend today in so many senses of the word. Melvin Van Peebles was a cinematic icon whose bold and unapologetic work exploded on the scene, capturing the attention of our culture, inspiring the hearts and minds of so many, and influencing the work of countless filmmakers. Melvin’s mark on cinema will never be forgotten.”

The afternoon kicked off with a welcome from Eastern Region Special Projects Committee Chair Raymond De Felitta and Eastern Diversity Steering Committee Alternate Co-Chair Derrick Doose, who spoke about the work of their respective committees and lauded the joint effort that brought this event to the DGA membership.

Following the introductions, the event’s moderator, Director Reginald Hudlin, started the conversation by saying, “Obviously if you are here, you know who Melvin Van Peebles is. But the great thing about his life is that no matter what you know there'll be something you don't know because he used every minute of his life in a productive way. He just did so many things in so many different areas. It’s an extraordinarily rich life and we’re going to talk about all of it because if you don't know whose shoulders you’re standing on, then you don't have a good foundation.”

Illustrated by clips from Van Peebles’s work as both a filmmaker and as an actor in his son’s films, the discussion revealed the vibrancy and range of the self-taught auteur.

After viewing a clip from The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Richardson-Whitfield, who had gotten to know Melvin while playing his daughter in Mario’s movie Posse said, “That is my first time seeing it and I was getting a little emotional, you know, just to have that time with your dad as my dad. As a filmmaker, now I know why he didn't need so much film. That opening shot… it's everything that I like to put in my work. It was so gorgeous. He just told that story with such simplicity. It was really way ahead of its time.”

Mann recalled how Melvin went against conventional wisdom in the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. “After you've made a movie like Watermelon Man, one of the most important decisions you could make — if you're a careerist which Melvin was not — is that second movie. You really want that second movie to be safe. Melvin does the exact absolute opposite. He just decides, ‘I'm going to make a movie that is about an urban proletarian who is going to assault the system.’ And it's radical. It's political. It's a militant movie. It's such an extraordinary move and it works.”

Shultz touched upon Van Peebles’ inspiration saying, “You know if it hadn't been for the executives who greenlit Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback wouldn't have been made. If Sweet Sweetback hadn't been made, Michael Schultz wouldn't have gotten the idea, ‘Hey, if Melvin can do that, I can do this.’ I was in New York theater at the time, but I wanted to be a film director. That was my entire mission, but I didn't know how to get there. But seeing the guts that Melvin had to do Sweetback I said, ‘Shoot I can do that.’ Maybe not the way that that he would do it, but I could do my own thing.”

The spirit of the afternoon was perhaps best summed up by Mario Van Peebles, who said about his late father, “So yeah that was Dad. He was willing to put it all on the line. After Sweetback came out he got one or two little offers but nothing big consistently and he said, ‘If you go into a pool hall and pretend you can't play pool and take all the bets and whip everyone you can't go back into that same pool hall again.’ To some degree Hollywood was that pool hall and they said, ‘OK there's money to be made in cinema with black folks, what could you do with Broadway?’ He was never artistically lazy. If he did that on Broadway, he'd start running marathons. If you started running marathons, he'd become the first black trader on the commodities exchange. He was always saying if he arrived in this area, keep moving. Keep on keeping on. That was part of his mantra, just to always stay learning and stay active. He was always that cat who could think around the corner.”

See video from this event in the gallery below


Mario Van PeeblesMario Van Peebles
Van Peebles made his directorial debut with the feature New Jack City in 1991. His other directorial credits include the feature films PossePantherU.S.S. IndianapolisWe the PartyArmed and BAADASSSSS! his odyssey about the making of his father's ground-breaking film. He also directed night two of the acclaimed re-imagining of Roots and has directed and acted in several television series including Bloodline and WuTang: An American Saga. Van Peebles joined the DGA in 1988.

Michael MannMichael Mann
A four-time Academy Award nominee Mann has established himself as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers in American cinema. His directorial credits include the feature films Thief , ManhunterThe Last of the MohicansHeatAliMiami ViceCollateralPublic Enemies and Blackhat; and episodes of Police WomanCrime Story, Luck and Tokyo Vice. He was nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature film for his 1999 production, The Insider. He won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Specials/Movies for Television/Actuality in 1979 for The Jericho Mile. Mann has been a member of the Directors Guild since 1977. 
Salli Richardson-WhitfieldSalli Richardson-Whitfield
Richardson-Whitfield was best known for her work in front of the camera before she made the move into the directing chair with episodes of the Syfy network’s hit series, Eureka, and Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar. Her directorial credits now include such shows as Wheel of TimeReprisalAltered CarbonAmerican GodsSurvivor’s RemorseThe ChiScandalBlackishLuke CageThe Gilded Age and Winning Time. Richardson-Whitfield joined the DGA in 2010. 
Michael SchultzMichael Schultz
One of the first African American directors hired by the major studios, Schultz opened doors for other directors of color after directing such successful features as Cooley HighCar WashWhich Way is Up?, Krush Groove and The Last Dragon. His directorial credits also include the feature film Woman Thou Art Loosed; and episodes of Black-ishStarNew GirlMy Crazy-Ex-GirlfriendArrowAll American and its spinoff, All American: Homecoming. Schultz joined the DGA in 1973. 
Reginald HudlinReginald Hudlin (moderator)
Noted as one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation, Hudlin’s directorial credits include the feature films Black Cotton StarSafetyMarshallServing SaraThe Ladies ManThe Great White HypeBoomerang and House Party; the movies for television Wifey and Last Days of Russell; the documentary The Black Godfather; episodes of the mini-series documentary Phat Tuesdays; the pilot for the series Everybody Hates Chris; and episodes of The Last O.G., Black MondayUncle BuckMurder in the FirstAre We There Yet?PsychModern Family and The Bernie Mac Show. Hudlin has been a member of the DGA since 1991. 


The Eastern Region Special Projects Committee

Special Projects is the educational and cultural arm of the Directors Guild of America, providing its members opportunities for creative exchange to advance their craft and celebrate the achievements of directors and their teams. The Eastern Region Special Projects Committee is chaired by Raymond De Felitta.

Eastern Diversity Steering Committee

The Eastern Diversity Steering Committee represents the concerns of Guild members of African, Asian, Native American, Arab-Middle Eastern or Latino descent residing in the East. Committed to improving the employment opportunities, working conditions and the skills of ethnically diverse Guild members, the Committee sponsors workshops, seminars, round-table discussions and networking events to showcase the talents of its members, recognize their contributions and increase their visibility in the industry. The Committee’s current Co-Chairs are UPM Canella Williams-Larrabee, Second AD Sussan Cordero and Stage Manager April Smith.

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