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The ‘Story’ of Van Peebles

By Bernard L. Parham, Contributing Writer

The original “badass” made an appearance at the Harvard Film Archive on the evening of April 25. I am speaking, of course, of legendary African-American author, composer, and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. Of his formidable body of work, Van Peebles is best known for his seminal 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song,” of which he was director, actor and writer.

However, this past Monday, Van Peebles was not on hand to discuss the work that earned him the title “the godfather of black cinema.” Rather, that evening’s screening was of his comparatively obscure first feature: “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.” Van Peebles remarked in a question and answer session after the film: “People who call me the godfather of modern black film are referring to ‘Sweetback,’ but that wasn’t the beginning. You have to go back a couple of films to get to my first feature. Which, ironically, was a French film.”

The irony to which Van Peebles refers is the circumstance surrounding his expatriation to France. He initially endeavored to launch his cinematic career in the Hollywood system, but the only positions available for African-Americans were menial.

“I went to Hollywood and asked to be a director, and they offered me a job as an elevator operator. I insisted that I wanted a job in production, and they eventually came back and offered me a job as a dancer,” recalls Van Peebles. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, and so I ended up in France.”

In France, Van Peebles would learn of an obscure law that permitted French writers to be issued temporary director’s cards. To that end, he set out to establish himself as a French man of letters: he found work as a journalist for French language publications and authored five novels in his adopted tongue. “La Permission,” a novel of an African-American soldier stationed near Paris, became the basis of “Three-Day Pass.”

The film follows the travails of Turner, a black G.I. based in France, who is issued the titular three-day pass upon receipt of his promotion. Turner decides to make use of leave by exploring Paris, and during this urban excursion he meets a lovely, white French woman named Miriam. A brief affair leads to tragedy when Turner’s white superior officers learn of his interracial romance.

Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies, explained just how controversial such a film would have been at the time of its release. “It is not until 1967 that the Supreme Court that struck down the legal prohibition against interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia. For [Van Peebles] to make this film is 1968 was radical,” he says.

But Van Peebles has never shied away from controversy or charges of radicalism. His later film “Sweetback,” after all, is about a black gigolo who goes on the lam after killing several racist police offers in the defense of a Black Panther Party member.

Allie Fields, one of the organizers of Van Peebles’ Harvard visit and teaching fellow to Professor Sollors’ course African and African American Studies 136, “Black and White in Drama and Film,” articulates the relationship between Van Peebles’ art and politics: “Van Peebles’s politics are indeed revolutionary. But aesthetically, his films are defined by constraints—of finances, style, and content—which make them doubly significant. They are on the surface aesthetically modernist, but in the context of their production histories they are also industrially avant-garde.”

“Three-Day Pass,” especially, embodies the avant-garde aesthetic. Van Peebles’ film greatly resembles those of his European contemporaries who comprised the nouvelle vague movement in French cinema. Van Peebles use of hand held cameras, source lighting, and jump cuts all evidence his stylistic indebtedness to Jean-Luc Godard, the movement’s leading light, but thematically he is beholden to no other. His is a uniquely defiant voice.

Harry Baird and Nicole Berger, portraying Turner and Miriam respectively, deliver tremendously affecting performances in “Three Day Pass.” Baird’s savagely self-loathing dialogues with his mirror image prefigure Ed Norton’s turn in Spike Lee’s 2002 film “25th Hour.” Baird expertly conveys Turner’s simultaneous capacities for incredible sensitivity and rage.

In one haunting scene, Turner attacks a Flamenco singer for addressing him as “el señor negrito”—Tuner mistakes the Spanish for “nigger.” After they have fled the scene of the assault together, Miriam implores Turner to explain why he reacted so violently to the singer’s affectionate reference to him as “blacky.” Turner replies wearily, “How could anyone think black is a compliment?”

Berger proves the consummate ingénue in her role as Miriam. She appears perfectly guileless and radiates compassion with each luminescent smile. Her naïveté offers stark counterpoint to Turner’s world-weariness. After she and Turner are discovered she remarks absently, “nothing is likely to come of it.” Turner feebly assents, but hangs his head in defeat.

Moments such as these, of innocence and resignation, suggest a gentler side to Van Peeble’s strident political persona. In that respect, the HFA event fulfilled its purpose perfectly: it offered uncommon insight into mind and heart of a cinematic fixture. And that is truly bad ass.

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