Remembering the Celebrated Life of Melvin Van Peebles, 1932-2021

The revolutionary filmmaker died at the age of 89

Melvin Van Peebles, one of Hollywood’s most revolutionary independent filmmakers has died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89. His movies include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Watermelon Man, and La Permission.

In this sad occassion, let’s take a look at the huge impact he’s made in Hollywood.


Melvin Van Peebles
Michael Ochs Archives

Van Peebles wasn’t only a director. He was a Parisian novelist, memoirist, reporter, Tony-nominated playwright, teacher, musician, stockbroker, and graphic novelist.

As he reached his twilight years, we see Van Peebles as a man who is completely at peace with where he is. He spent his life breaking barriers and not taking “no” for an answer. He was the one who paved the way for Black filmmakers in Hollywood. His films discussed the struggles of being Black in America. His 1970 movie Watermelon Man is about a bigoted white insurance man who wakes up to find out that he turned Black overnight.

Likewise, his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death told stories of hardship faced by African Americans through monologues and songs. The play made its return to Broadway soon after. His son and actor Mario Van Peebles said that the play was considered to be his father’s crowning achievement, and many wanted to see it return to Broadway.


Mr. Peebles
Sadaka Edmond/Sipa/AP

Filmmaker Spike Lee was one of the first celebrities to offer their condolences. He praised Melvin as he brought independent Black cinema to the forefront. Melvin was also a supporter in Lee’s career.

Filmmaker Ava Duverney paid a touching tribute to Van Peebles with the following quote:

“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.”

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