African-American film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles'
thought-provoking, award-winning documentary, Classified X, which is set to debut
on BET Movies/Starz!3, is a very personal story that goes beyond the mere rechronicling of
African-American cinema to how the films affected him personally.
Van Peebles, who narrated and wrote Classified X,
said he realized at age 12 that movies were "messin' with his mind."
After viewing yet another Hollywood product populated with
dancing darkies; shivering, bug-eyed scaredy-cats; or shuffling servants barely brighter
than a chimp, he realized that the "colored" people who he saw in films bore no
resemblance to the adults who he faced daily growing up on the south side of Chicago.
Those men were fearless, and the women were majestic.
Van Peebles takes nearly one hour to lay out his time line.
He shoots artfully, using the natural arches of urban freeway underpasses to frame his
One shows a golfer substituting his black caddie as a tee,
then kicking the man's behind when he swallows the golf ball, rather than having his
face become a divot. Black men could become entertainers in films, but mostly if white
stars were learning the routines and performing the skills better by the time the number
Racism abated slightly after World War II, as Adolf Hitler
made it unfashionable. Blacks in film graduated to one-dimensional, Van Peebles said, but
the roles were still not much to be proud of. Casablanca offered about the only
role where a black didn't "have to kiss ass," the director recalls.
The director all but dismisses the independent-black-film
scene that existed until the end of segregation, producing entertainment for blacks-only
urban theaters. They were racist in their own way, with lighter-skinned blacks cast in the
most heroic roles.
Although independent films are cheaper to finance today,
film is still segregated, the director posits, because the majority still controls
distribution. White studio bosses believe that black audiences will only support action
films, so films about middle-class families aren't promoted or made widely available.
Van Peebles' documentary is part of a monthlong salute
to his work throughout November on BET Movies/Starz!3. Classified X debuts Nov. 13
at 10 p.m., and the homage includes his most famous movie, Sweet Sweetback's