A fascinating and heartfelt pseudo-documentary by Mario Van Peebles, "Baadasssss!" focuses on the birth of his father Melvin's film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song", which was a landmark in African American cinema. The film, which takes place in 1971, starts off with Melvin (played by Mario) having just completed "Watermelon Man" and finding himself with a three-picture deal with a major studio.
While his friends and colleagues look for him to do another basic film along the lines of what the studio expects from him, he decides that he wants to do something much more ambitious than that. Although his idea begins to form over time, his main idea is to make a movie with an entirely African-American cast. None of the studios want a part of it, forcing Melvin to seek financial backing elsewhere.
Melvin eventually began to figure ways to pull the film together, doing such things as using non-union workers and shooting without permits. Financial backers get arrested and Melvin eventually relies on his own money. After all of the of the problems encountered during pre-production and production, Melvin doesn't find things any easier - the issues of distribution and exhibition present new hurdles. Despite the fact that everything seemed to be completely against him, Melvin keeps pushing and pushing until the film is finally complete. On the other hand, the passion comes at a cost: Melvin is presented as passionate and ambitious, but tough on those who cared about him, including his son - who Melvin forces to have a traumatic scene on-screen losing his virginity with a prostitute at only 13.
The performances are excellent throughout, especially Mario's portrayal of his father. It's a complex, fierce performance that shows both the father's ambition and drive, as well as his anger and occasional hints of sorrow over the realization that the feelings of his loved ones did not always come first. Supporting performances by Khleo Thomas (playing Mario), David Allan Grier, Nia Long and others are uniformly terrific. The direction is excellent, as is the energy and strong, yet not overdone visual style of the film. A few of the supporting characters aren't as developed as I'd have liked, but overall, this is a terrific chronicle of the times - good, bad and extraordinarily difficult - behind this legendary film.
VIDEO: "Baadasssss!" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is generally quite good; sharpness and detail remain strong, although fine details aren't always visible in the image. The presentation did show some minor grain, but the print was in excellent condition and flaws were at a minimum. No edge enhancement was spotted, nor was any pixelation. The film's vivid color palette looked bright and well-saturated, with no smearing.
SOUND: "Baadasssss!" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's funk/soul soundtrack is the one element that gets the most use out of the rear speakers, as they get to provide reinforcement of the music during several sequences. The surrounds do kick in with sound effects (voices, etc) during a few scenes, as well. Audio quality was very good, as music sounded dynamic and sound effects/dialogue remained clear.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary from director/actor Mario Van Peebles and his father, actor Melvin Van Peebles. The commentary is an excellent one, as the father/son duo chat about the film at hand, discussing the realities of both the story on-screen, as well as the realities of getting both "Sweet Sweetback" and "Baadasssss!" to the screen - doing it with help of others who respected both their dreams. There's a few minor pauses of silence, but this is mostly an informative and entertaining track.
Also included on the DVD is a fantastic 31-minute Question and Answer session with Melvin Van Peebles as well as two lengthy featurettes: "The Premiere" and "The Birth of Black Cinema". There are also poster explorations and previews for other titles.
Final Thoughts: "Baadasss!" is a largely fantastic exploration of a man who was willing to risk everything to persue his dream. The performances are superb and the film manages both drama and humor well. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides excellent audio/video quality and a lot of good supplements. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2