Filmmaker and great thinker Melvin Van Peebles died last week at the age of 89 at his New York home. He is best known as the author of the first blockbuster blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback song Baadasssss (1971), but he was an artist of great breadth and versatility: sculptor; poet; painter; composer and, with Gil Scott-Heron, ancestor of rap and hip-hop; playwright; gifted novelist. I would continue, but I have no more semicolons. From his obituaries, one gets the impression that his supreme act of mischief was to leave the obituaries with an impossible task, to contain seven or eight human lives in a few paragraphs. The disposable lines note that during a long period of expatriation, he “studied astronomy – a personal fascination – at the University of Amsterdam”. He worked as a gigolo. He painted portraits professionally in Mexico. Back in America, his first book details his life as a cable car driver in San Francisco. In 1984, he made money trading options on Wall Street.
The Van Peebles work that thrills me the most comes from one of those stays abroad – and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the products of exile was such a clever and entertaining work. . Van Peebles has written five books in French, including An American in Hell (1965), later published in English under the title The real American. A bitter and funny picaresque novel, it bears the mark of a creative spirit returning to a subject after having moved away from it.
The hero of the book, Abe, was born poor and black in Georgia in the 19th century. He gets caught by dirty cops, is thrown in jail and soon dies in a blasting accident on a gang of work. After ascending to the gates of heaven, he meets Jesus, “a thin and liberal white man,” seated at a desk. In a moment of liberal guilt, Jesus considers admitting Abe to heaven, but at the last minute one of the angels in heaven (who is in the form of a white woman afraid of blacks) screams, thinking that Abe admires her body through her veil, angel dress revealing form. Jesus’ liberal indulgence instantly disappears and he sends Abe to hell.
The novel combines the work of Franz Kafka America, Mark Twain, and The right place. The Devil embarked on a plan to “modernize Hell”. He devotes Pit 30 to Americans and studies ways to achieve maximum poverty with minimum expense. It turns out that the most effective way to increase the misery of Americans is to torture whites by making black people happier and freer. “Their contentment is more than compensated by the misfortune of their compatriots”, explains the Devil to his board of directors. Black men will have endless education, political rights, and sex with anonymous women of all races, while white Americans are forced to watch and be stabbed in the throat if they complain. (Van Peebles’ female characters are, to say the least, underdeveloped.) The experiment works, says the Devil: a fifth the number of imps and an eight the amount of space!
Abe ultimately decides that the education he got in Hell is a gift to share, and he persuades the Devil to send him back to Earth to improve the lot of mankind. Abe’s friend Dave, a lovable white man who died after being scalped at the border, can also return, so they can save America together. While restoring to Earth, now on the eve of WWII, the couple face opposite fates. On the South Side of Chicago, Abe goes to a rental party, dances with a woman, and is quickly killed again by a jealous boyfriend. Dave graduates, becomes a decorated bomber during the war, enriches himself as a businessman, and convinces himself that his memories of hell and death were only his imagination. Eventually, he completely suppressed the wisdom of the Hereafter. The illusion has become so powerful, and the consequence of facing it so terrible, that Dave cannot let it go. Abe persuades the Devil to let him go back once more, but when he arrives in post-war Chicago and is unable to wake Dave from his racist slumber, Abe wonders if this could be the wrong place.
Could the novel be Van Peebles’ most autobiographical work? If he has died and has returned to Earth several times, it is beyond my ability to know. (That would explain the seven or eight lives. The Devil told Abe that he sent people back to Earth with some regularity. It would also explain the occasional miraculous healing on the battlefield: The Devil sends back a few souls to keep things interesting. .) But in Abe, I see Van Peebles, and Van Peebles’ extended spells abroad are like Abe’s stays in hell. In Europe, Van Peebles continued his studies. He hid himself from American racism (but by no means dodging its European equivalent; his 1967 film, The story of a three-day pass, about a black American soldier on leave in France, is a minor classic of the French New Wave). It was also his gigolo days. Like Abe, he slept with endless white women, not entirely by choice: he needed money. It is the Joycian period of Van Peebles, the prolonged exile which allows him to diagnose the disease of his country and to learn the contours of his despair. It wasn’t heaven, but not quite hell either, and like all respites, it ended with a comeback – Abe’s return to America, and Van’s as well. Peebles. They are American Dantes.
Van Peebles is best known for the commercial success of Soft, which demonstrated that black films featuring black characters who could (in Van Peebles’ words) “go through an entire movie without having to kiss” were financially viable. Hollywood continued to learn this lesson, although over time it forgot about the cynicism that Van Peebles brought from abroad. In 2018, Jamil Smith announced the film Black Panther saying “prove[s] in Hollywood that African American narratives have the power to generate profits for all audiences. (I detect in the corporate box office triumphalism a touch of Van Peebles’ Devil’s diction: “The new system is a remarkable success … A major breakthrough, gentlemen.”) In addition to being less commercial, the work of Van Peebles was just Deeper. His fantasy was trying not to escape reality (Black Panther is pure escape, and useless as a running guide in America) but to enlighten it, tragedy and everything. The real american is it that.
My late friend and mentor Ulric S. Haynes, who grew up black in New York during the same years Van Peebles grew up black in Chicago, sometimes lamented the difficulty of persuading black students to go abroad, like him. and Van Peebles did, almost whenever they could. (Haynes became a diplomat and was at one point such a personification of “radical chic” that he appears in the essay by Tom Wolfe who coined the phrase.) Travel has inherent rewards. But for members of a besieged minority, these rewards can be doubly rich. It’s hard to get a perspective on your surroundings when your face is crushed into the dirt, or as Van Peebles might have put it, when a man’s foot is stuck in your ass. Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin would not have been the same without their sojourns in the British Isles, France, Turkey and Switzerland.
Van Peebles’ career shows once again that exile can be such a powerful tool to exercise the imagination and save it when the false idol of escape returns. One way to carry on Van Peebles’ legacy is to take a camera. Another is to get a passport.