Melvin Van Peebles Speaking at TMR Detroit
Filmmaker, Writer, Legend, Melvin Van Peebles will be performing at TMR Cass Corridor on February 25, 2016.
Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago, Illinois, to a black tailor, he joined the Air Force in 1954, thirteen days after graduating in Literature (B.A., 1953) from Ohio Wesleyan University, staying for three and a half years in the Force. 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 started driving cable cars in San Francisco.
Melvin Van Peebles began writing about his experiences as a cable car driver. Van Peebles' first book, The Big Heart, evolved from a small article and series of photographs.
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."
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.  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 magazine 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.
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. 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. 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 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.
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.
In 2009, Van Peebles became involved with a project to make Sweet Sweetback a musical. 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.
On August 21, 2012, he distributed a new album, on vinyl only, called Nahh... Nahh Mofo. This album was distributed at his birthday celebration at Film Forum.
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." 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.