Melvin Van Peebles: ‘Godfather of black cinema’ dies aged 89

Influential filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles – who was described as the “godfather of black cinema” – has died aged 89.

Van Peebles, known for 1970s films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, died on Tuesday evening at his home in New York.

Actor Mario Van Peebles, the filmmaker’s son and long-time creative collaborator, said: “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?

“We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the coloniser’s mentality.

“It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Van Peebles’s death was announced in a joint statement from his family, The Criterion Collection of prestige movies of which his films were included, and the art house distributor Janus Films.

It said: “In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music.”

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Chicago-born Van Peebles first tried his hand at filmmaking in the 1950s, after a stint in the Air Force.

Watermelon Man, the 1970 comedy, featured a white, racist 1960s-era insurance salesman who wakes up to find he is black.

Blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song arrived in 1971 and told the story of a black man trying to escape white police officers.

Despite his success, Van Peebles turned down a three-film deal from Columbia Pictures.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins was among those paying tribute following his death.

The Moonlight director said: “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED.”

Ava DuVernay, another of Hollywood’s leading contemporary black directors, shared a quote from Van Peebles in her tribute.

She tweeted: “‘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.’ – the iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer and sage Melvin Van Peebles, who has gone home at the age of 89.”

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