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Basic Black; Conversation With Melvin Van Peebles


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Basic Black
Conversation With Melvin Van Peebles
Program Number


Series Description

THe series was formerly known as Say Brother. Series title change as of 1/8/1998. This series is black produced and is one of public television's longest-running series that is rooted in and reflects the culture, concerns, achievements and history of people of African descent. Also includes controversial issues, African American artists, and events of special interest to the African American community.

Series release date: 1/8/1998

Program Description

A new installment from Basic Black’s "Conversation with" series showcases director, producer, writer, composer Melvin Van Peebles (Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, The Story of a Three-Day Pass). The 69-year-old Chicago native, recently named to the French Legion of Honor for his contribution to the arts and humanities, talks with series host Darren Duarte about his life, times and impact on blacks in Hollywood; so do Van Peebles’ friends, actor Ossie Davis, author Walter Mosely and filmmaker Warrington Hudlin.

Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker, author, and playwright who has been dubbed the "Godfather of Black Cinema," talks to Basic Black host Darren Duarte about his ground breaking films, the creative process, and his thoughts on African Americans in filmmaking today.

Van Peebles, who has been credited with single-handedly altering the characterization of African Americans in cinema, launched his film and literary career in Paris in the mid-1960s. He returned from Paris in 1967 as a French delegate to the San Francisco Film Festival where his first feature film, The Story of a Three Day Pass, received strong reviews. His presence created an embarrassment to the Hollywood establishment: ten years earlier Van Peebles' attempts to break into filmmaking in the U.S. had been met with an offer for an elevator operator position.

"Most people start in movies from a love of cinema," said Van Peebles. "It was a very ambivalent situation with me. I started in cinema because I got disgusted with the images I saw of African Americans on screen. One day, after viewing a particularly Uncle Tom-ish scene, I said to myself, 'I can do better than that,' and set out to do just that."

Van Peebles, who was born in Chicago in 1932, became the first African American director to create a body of work in modern Hollywood. In 1970, Columbia Pictures hired him to direct Watermelon Man, a humorous send-up on bigotry. A year later he independently wrote, produced, and financed his most controversial and groundbreaking work, Sweet Sweetback's Baaadaaasss Song. The film, which starred Van Peebles as the first black anti-hero, grossed over $10 million and was the forerunner of the "blacksploitation" movies of the 1970s. Van Peebles said he created the strong-willed title character to show audiences that "you can take your destiny into your own hands."

Van Peebles believed in hiring other black individuals to work on his films to learn the trade, a sensibility eventually adopted by other studios. "After Sweetback, there was suddenly this need to hire people to tell the stories to meet the demand I created, and the people they were hiring were black," said Van Peebles. "They learned the trade and went on to make significant contributions to the industry." Indeed, Van Peebles' own son Mario, whose acting and directing credits include New Jack City and Posse, launched his career in the mid-1980s. Sweetback was followed by successful forays into Broadway musicals, 11 Tony nominations, and commodities trading. He also produced records in New York which were precursors to today's rap music. The New York Times has called him a "Twentieth Century Renaissance Man." On April 24, 2001, Van Peebles was honored with one of France's most distinguished awards, the French Legion of Honor.

Asset Type

Broadcast program

Media Type


Social Issues
Race and Ethnicity
Chicago: “Basic Black; Conversation With Melvin Van Peebles,” 07/01/2001, WGBH Media Library & Archives, accessed April 25, 2019, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_70C6808880754D10B7B198DF603EB145.
MLA: “Basic Black; Conversation With Melvin Van Peebles.” 07/01/2001. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Web. April 25, 2019. <http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_70C6808880754D10B7B198DF603EB145>.
APA: Basic Black; Conversation With Melvin Van Peebles. Boston, MA: WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved from http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_70C6808880754D10B7B198DF603EB145
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