Chicago Native Melvin Van Peebles Godfather of Black Cinema Dies at Age 89

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Van Peebles
Image by annulla (Flickr CC0)

Chicago native and African American auteur Melvin Van Peebles has passed away at the age of 89. He was the man behind the 1970s films “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Watermelon Man.” He died in his Manhattan, New York home on the evening of Sept. 22, 2021.

Van Peebles’ family, The Criterion Collection, and Janus Films announced the sad news via a statement.

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.

Van Peebles
Image by John Mathew Smith (Flickr CC0)

The statement continued on with “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”

Next week, “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films” — a Criterion Collection box set — will be released. His play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” is scheduled to return to Broadway next year.

He was born on Aug. 21, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois. The Godfather of Black Cinema is also known for “Don’t Play Us Cheap” and “The Shining.” On May 31, 1956, he married Maria Marx. Before they divorced they had three children together — Mario, Megan, and Max Van Peebles.

The actor/writer was nominated for three Tony awards:

  • Two were in 1972 for Best Score and Best Book (Musical) as both Lyricist and Composer for his hit “Ain’t Supposed to Dia a Natural Death.”
  • And in 1973 for Best Book (Musical) for his “Don’t Play Us Cheap.”

In 2003, his son Mario portrayed him in the movie “Baadasssss!” This film was half documentary and half homage to the Godfather of Black Cinema.

He was a member of the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (AMPAS) since 2016.

In a statement, his son Mario said that his father “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 colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty, and interconnectivity of all people.

He is survived by his children, grandchildren (Maya, Marley, and Mandela), family, and friends. May he rest in peace.

Written by Sheena Robertson


IMDb: Melvin Van Peebles

The Hollywood Reporter: Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89; by Mike Barnes

Inset Image Courtesy of John Mathew Smith &’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of annulla’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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