Legendary Actor, Writer, Director Melvin Van Peebles Dies At 89

By Regina Park

September 22, 2021

Photo: Getty Images

Melvin Van Peebles, director, writer, actor known as the "Godfather of Black Cinema" died Tuesday night (September 21) at his home in NYC.

He is best known for his cinematic projects from the 1970s including Watermelon Man, and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and the 1997 cult classic The Shining to name just two of his directorial, writing and acting credits.

"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," a joint statement released by his family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films, per The Hollywood Reporter.

"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, a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated to return to Broadway next year," the statement reads.

Melvin Van Peebles is the father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles.

With a multi-decade-spanning career, Van Peebles graced screens and stage, making an impact across generations.

The Chicago native broke through the entertainment industry, penning novels, plays, directing and starring in films, and composing music.

His breakout film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was made in 1971 and features a soundtrack from the legendary Earth, Wind, and Fire. Though the film only opened in two venues in Atlanta and Detroit, word quickly among Black people about a film that starred "The Black Community."

"Dad knew that Black images matter," Mario wrote in a statement. "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."

Van Peebles went on to receive Tony nominations, and won a Daytime Emmy and a Humanitas Prize in 1987 for his writing of an episode of CBS Schoolbreak Special entitled "The Day They Came to Arrest the Books."

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