After nearly 40 years, Melvin Van Peebles is resurrecting his fiery, militant film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” for an audience that, in his opinion, has become numbed to the racial issues that still plague America.
Van Peebles, now 77, has had to pass along the role of Sweetback — a virile, proud black man who doesn’t take any crap from racist cops — though the director is as passionate about the character as ever. That said, he has added a few ingredients to the film’s dated mix of racial injustice, righteous anger and hot sex.
As Van Peebles sees it, young people today just don’t get the message borne out of the turmoil of the Civil Rights era.
“Some of the younger audience were a little adrift in the tenor of the movie,” Van Peebles said during a break from rehearsals for the three-night stand at BRIC Studios in Fort Greene next month. “Many of the ideas have become watered down.”
As such, in the upcoming “ ’hood opera” version of “Sweetback,” the racist police commissioner breaks into a viciously ironic song about “a slice of that good old American pie” after shamelessly using a racial slur in front of two black cops.
In the film version, Van Peebles noted, the top cop simply used the slur and moved on.
Proving Van Peebles’s point, the 30-year-old actor filling the role of Sweetback admitted that he initially felt removed from the themes of the story.
“People my age are drawn to the 1970s, mostly because of fashion,” the actor, Jeremiah Abiah said. “Issues of race have been washed over between generations — sugar-coated because of the Civil Rights movement. But the issues are still alive, especially through a project like this.”
The cigar-smoking director was quick to point out that despite his revisions to accommodate his new audience, the jive-talk, funk music style of the film, straight out of 1971, will remain.
Van Peebles’s goal is now to transport the audience back to the time of his film that, he said, was required viewing among the Black Panthers.
His movie tells the picaresque adventures of a sex performer named “Sweetback” who kills a couple of corrupt cops in Los Angeles before he hightails it to the Mexican border. During his escape are pit stops for surreal sexual encounters interspersed with funky montages of parts of Southern California ignored by Hollywood.
To recapture the aura of the early 1970s period piece for the live show, Van Peebles enlisted the band Burnt Sugar, which not only provides the excellent soundtrack, but also participates in the performance. In fact, many of the musicians will fulfill roles as characters on stage — some going so far as to participate in the numerous sex scenes. (The encounters will be clothed, alas, making them not nearly as authentic as the original film version — which earned every X of its adults-only rating.)
Van Peebles has had made other adjustments to his righteous tale as well.
Specifically, the director cut 17 minutes and 20 seconds — he knew the exact amount of film — that were impossible to adapt to the stage because they were almost entirely random shots of scenes from Southern California in the 1970s.
To make up for the missing time, the film’s opening scene — in which a very young Sweetback (then played by a naked Mario Van Peebles, the director’s son) discovers his sexual prowess at age 13 — has been expanded for the stage.
When asked if he caught any flack for using his own son in such a racy scene, Van Peebles blew off the question.
“I catch flack for everything,” Van Peebles said. “Mario must have enjoyed the scene — he’s got five kids now.”
Indeed, Van Peebles follows his own path and it has worked out well for him.
As it turned out, “Sweetback” grossed $10 million off a bare-bones budget, netting Van Peebles a decent profit in spite of all his (white) naysayers — a point that brings him great pleasure.
“I’m actually a lonely, sad person,” Van Peebles said with a wry smile.
“I go to the bank with big crocodile tears.”
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” at BRIC Arts | Media | House [647 Fulton St. between Rockwell Place and DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 855-7882] will show Feb. 3-5. Tickets are $10. For info, visit www.bricartsmedia.org.