Sweet, Sweet Legacy

Ohio Wesleyan Announces 2023 Melvin Van Peebles Symposium

By Cole Hatcher

Ohio Wesleyan University will celebrate the legacy of groundbreaking Black filmmaker and 1953 OWU graduate Melvin Van Peebles at an on-campus symposium March 31 and April 1, 2023. Presentation proposals are being accepted through Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Georges Baird)

DELAWARE, Ohio – Ohio Wesleyan University is accepting presentation proposals for its inaugural symposium to explore the legacy of groundbreaking Black filmmaker and 1953 OWU graduate Melvin Van Peebles.

“Melvin Van Peebles was a true Renaissance man,” said Antron Mahoney, Ph.D., an Ohio Wesleyan assistant professor of Africana, Gender, and Identity Studies and co-chair of the new symposium.

“Melvin’s work broke through the boundaries of race and gender, and he was a true innovator in film, theater, music, art, literature, and business,” Mahoney said. “This symposium will honor and celebrate his life and legacy and allow us to examine the historical, political, and contemporary impact of his work. We’ll also recognize emerging artists and artistry that extend his radical tradition.”

The two-day symposium will be held March 31 and April 1, 2023, on the OWU campus and feature screenings and discussions of four essential Van Peebles’ films: “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” (1967), “Watermelon Man” (1970), “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971),  and “Don’t Play Us Cheap” (1973).

The ticketed event also is scheduled to include panel discussions, presentations of academic research into Van Peebles’ work, and keynote addresses from presenters including award-winning Ohio journalist and author Wil Haygood. To learn more about the event, review presentation guidelines, and submit symposium proposals, visit owu.edu/VanPeebles. Ticket sales and additional keynote speakers will be announced at a later date.

Ohio Wesleyan faculty member Brian Granger, Ph.D., wrote about the impact of Van Peebles following the filmmaker’s death in September 2021. An assistant professor of Theatre, Granger shared the following about the “avant-garde filmmaker-writer-performer and culture hero”:

“It would be a mistake to label Van Peebles’ achievements as only an African American inspiration, though his presence and impact as a pioneering Black artist is profound,” Granger stated. “He was simply avant-garde as a director, and his vision and DIY directing style, which gave him a commercial hit, had a major influence on Hollywood film in general, beyond the narrower discussion of race. … [T]he swift and smooth violence of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ does not exist in a world without Van Peebles. Spike Lee’s signature floating camera shots, and the charged public arguments his characters engage in around race, do not exist in a world without Van Peebles.

“In the credits of ‘Baadasssss,’ we’re told the film is ‘Starring: The Black Community,’ and this credit is both novel and prophetic in that Van Peebles put urban African American lives and language, in all their grittiness and soul, on screen.” Granger concluded. “In doing so, he awakened and inspired the political imagination of artists worldwide.”

Visit owu.edu/VanPeebles for the latest information about the inaugural Melvin Van Peebles Symposium and to submit presentation proposals. The proposal submission deadline is Jan. 18, 2023.

The event is being planned by Ohio Wesleyan’s Department of Africana, Gender, and Identity Studies; Film Studies Program; Department of Journalism and Communication; Department of Performing Arts; Office of Multicultural Student Affairs; and Richard M. Ross Art Museum via a committee that also includes writer Haygood and Delaware educator Francine Butler.


Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers more than 70 undergraduate majors and competes in 24 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through its signature experience, the OWU Connection, Ohio Wesleyan teaches students to understand issues from multiple academic perspectives, volunteer in service to others, build a diverse and global perspective, and translate classroom knowledge into real-world experience through internships, research, and other hands-on learning. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” and included on the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “Best Colleges” lists. Connect with OWU expert interview sources at owu.edu/experts or learn more at owu.edu.