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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.