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Melvin Van Peebles

Pioneering Artist Melvin Van Peebles Dead At 89

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(CelebrityAccess) — Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering black director behind films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man, has died. He was 89.

His passing was announced by his family and the Criterion Collection, which wrote: “We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”

A cause of death for Van Peebles was not disclosed.

Van Peebles is best known for the blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he produced, directed and starred in in 1971. While he had been offered a three picture deal by Columbia, the film attracted no studio support and was filmed independently over the course of 15 days.

Initially, the film received very limited distribution, screened in just two theaters in the U.S. but went on to gross $15.2 million at the box office. The film was identified in 2020 as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Van Peebles is also widely known for “Watermelon Man” his 1970 examination of race and class in America. The film, which stars Godfrey Cambridge as a bigoted white insurance salesman who wakes up to find himself black.

The film, which was Peebles only studio backed movie, was a financial success, grossing $61,000 in its opening week and more than $1.1 million in theatrical rentals during its initial run in the box office.

Van Peebles was also a recording artist, releasing multiple soul, jazz and spoken word albums, starting in 1968 with Brer Soul through 2014’s The Last Transmission, a collaboration with the British experimental music collective The Heliocentrics.

Melvin Van Peebles married Maria Marx in the 1950s, but the couple divorced. Their son is actor and director Mario Van Peebles.

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