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Melvin Van Peebles, the influential filmmaker behind Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and the father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, has died. He was 89 years old.

53th French Festival de Cannes, 2000

Source: Thierry LE FOUILLE / Getty

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was groundbreaking for many reasons, with Van Peebles financing and released the film independently and paving the way for a whole new world of indie cinema. Plus, since he couldn’t afford a traditional marketing campaign, he used the film’s soundtrack to build awareness for the movie. Most importantly, he proved that films by Black filmmakers about Black life in America could be profitable.

Columbia had offered Van Peebles a three-picture contract on the strength of his previous film Watermelon Man, but neither Columbia nor any other other studio would finance the film project that would become Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, so he did it himself.

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” his son Mario Van Peebles said in a statement from the Criterion Collection. “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 colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Mario also posted a heartfelt video about his father to Instagram, letting fans of him and his dad know that they can honor his legacy by getting out there and making a difference.

In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, Sweet Sweetback will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week.

“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,” the Criterion Collection said.

In addition to son Mario, Melvin is survived by son Max Van Peebles, an occasional actor and assistant director, daughter Marguerite, and grandchildren.

Rest In Peace.

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