Inaugural Melvin Van Peebles Symposium

Friday, March 31 - Saturday, April 1, 2023
Keynote Speakers: Wil Haygood and Others TBA

Submit a Proposal
Submission Deadline: January 4, 2023

Melvin Van Peebles at the Deauville Film Festival. (Photo by Georges Baird)

Best known as a trailblazing Black filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles was a twentieth-century Renaissance man, transcending the boundaries of race and gender as an innovator in film, theater, music, art, literature, and business. With his recent death, the aim of this symposium is to honor and celebrate his life and legacy by providing a platform to review, study, and share the historical and contemporary impact of Van Peebles, and how through this examination, we might gain important insights about broader political and cultural dynamics. Furthermore, the symposium seeks to recognize emerging artists and artistry that extend Van Peebles’ radical tradition.

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan in 1953 with a degree in English, Van Peebles served as a navigator and bombardier in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command. He soon found his calling to be an artist and began an accomplished career that spanned the arts—and often redefined them.

After making the short films Sunlight (1957) and Three Pick-Up Men for Herrick (1957) while living in San Francisco, Van Peebles moved to Holland and then France, where he was a crime reporter and began writing novels. He made his debut as a stage writer, lyricist, and composer with Harlem Party (1964).

Van Peebles is best known for his work in feature films. He first adapted his French novel The Story of a Three-Day Pass into a film, which he also directed. With its domestic release in 1968 upon returning to the United States, Van Peebles became the first Black director of a feature film released in the U.S. since Oscar Micheaux’s The Betrayal in 1948. Van Peebles would go on to direct and score Watermelon Man (1970), a sharp-edged comedy about a white bigot who wakes up Black one day. In 1971, Van Peebles independently produced, directed, wrote, scored, and starred in the controversial film Sweet Sweetback’s Bassdasssss Song. Opening to mixed reviews, the film has grossed over $15 million and established Van Peebles as a pioneer among Black filmmakers and storytellers as he challenged Hollywood establishment and standards.

In addition to directing or starring in a number of movies in the 1980s and 1990s, most recently he directed Identity Crisis (1989); acted in Posse (1993); produced, scripted, and appeared in Panther (1995); wrote and starred in the documentary Classified X (1998); wrote and directed the French film Bellyful (2000); was the subject of the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005); and wrote, produced, directed, and starred in ConfessionsOfa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008).

His Broadway musicals include Tony-award-nominated Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971), Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972), and Waltz of the Stork (1982). His ventures into the music industry include albums such as Brer Soul (1968) and Ghetto Gothic (1995). A CD titled The Melvin Van Peebles Collection was released in 1999. Van Peebles worked on films and television with his son, Mario Van Peebles, also an accomplished actor, director, and producer.

Melvin Van Peebles received many honors and awards for his achievements in the film industry and was named Chevalier in the Legion d’Honneur by the Republic of France in New York.

Melvin Van Peebles, posing with his biggest fan, in front of his artwork, “A Ghetto Mother’s Prayer.” (Photo by Alex Lozupone)

Though Van Peebles’ cultural works are vast, there is a lack of public attention and scholarship focused on his life and legacy. Therefore, this symposium strives to bring together enthusiasts, activists, artists, and scholars who share various interests in and perspectives on Van Peebles to continue to cultivate his rich archive.

As a result, we invite proposals engaged in thought, action, and cultural production related to Van Peebles directly or indirectly that address the significance of his life and the legacy of his work from all relevant disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives; within various social, political, historical, and/or geographical contexts; and differing cultural mediums, including but not limited to, film, theater, music, art, literature, and business.

Symposium Schedule Overview

The symposium will feature special keynote sessions commemorating the life and work of Melvin Van Peebles by leading scholars and artists in film and media as well as the screening of four of Van Peebles’ classic films. (Additional information will be added here as it becomes available.)

  • Keynote sessions with journalist and author Wil Haygood and other special guests to be announced. 
  • Screenings of The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), Watermelon Man (1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973).
  • Panels, roundtables, and performances exploring the significance of Van Peebles’ life and the legacy of his work politically and culturally. 

Possible Presentation Formats

Scholarly Paper Panels

  • A panel of 3-4 speakers presenting scholarly papers on a common theme.
  • You may submit a panel proposal or an individual paper proposal (written by one or more authors).
  • Selected presenters (i.e., the panel) should collectively speak for 60 minutes to ensure that audience members have 15 minutes to respond and discuss; therefore, each speaker may present their research for approximately 15-20 minutes given the number of panelists.

Roundtable Conversations

  • Roundtables are intimate conversations between colleagues centered on a single topic, question, or idea.
  • Roundtables can have anywhere from 3-6 speakers, each presenting a specific take on an issue.
  • Roundtable participants should collectively speak for no more than 60 minutes to ensure that audience members have 15 minutes to respond and discuss.

Performance

  • An individual or group performance of a selected piece of music, dance, play, or other oral/movement presentation.
  • Performances should be no more than 60 minutes to ensure that audience members have at least 15 minutes to respond and discuss.

Film Screenings

  • Films can be works-in-progress or final products.
  • Films can be narrative, documentary, or experimental.
  • The maximum allowed film length is 60 minutes to ensure that audience members have at least 15 minutes to respond and discuss; however, there is no minimum film length.
  • The person submitting the film must own full rights to allow for its presentation.

Proposal Submission Guidelines

Proposals for Single Papers/Performances/Films

  • Title (15 words or less)
  • Abstract (150 words or less)
  • Brief bio for each creator/co-creator (150 words or less)
  • Narrative discussing the following (1,000 words or less):
    • How does this relate to the symposium in terms of Van Peebles’ life and legacy?
    • What is the significance of this work within its field(s) of study, practice, and/or genre?
    • What are the approaches, methods, strategies, and/or techniques for analysis or production?
    • What will session attendees experience in your work? How can they use the knowledge presented?

Proposals for Scholarly Paper Panels and Roundtables

  • Session Title (15 words or less)
  • Session Abstract (250 words or less)
  • [For scholarly paper panels only] Individual paper/presentation titles (15 words or less) and abstracts (150 words or less) from each session paper
  • Brief bio for each participant (150 words or less)
  • Narrative discussing the following (1,000 words or less):
    • How does this session relate to the symposium in terms of Van Peebles’ life and legacy?
    • What is the significance of this topic within its field(s) of study, practice, and/or genre?
    • What are the approaches, methods, strategies, and/or techniques for analysis or production central to this session/topic?
    • What will session attendees experience in your session? How can they use the knowledge presented?

Submit a Proposal
Submission Deadline: January 4, 2023

Department Contact Info

Location

Elliott Hall 211
Ohio Wesleyan University
Delaware, OH 43015

Department Contacts

Department Co-Chair: Randolph Quaye
368-3833 | rkquaye@owu.edu

Department Co-Chair: Richelle D. Schrock
740-368-3871 | rdschroc@owu.edu

Academic Assistant: Wendi Kay
740-368-3982 | wwkay@owu.edu