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Melvin Van Peebles, A Giant Of Black Cinema, Dies At 89

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Melvin Van Peebles was many things, an independent filmmaker, actor, author, playwright, poet, painter and musician. He died Tuesday at the age of 89. Here he is talking to NPR in 2006 about writing stories with Black protagonists.

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: When I didn't see what I thought I was seeing in reality, I said, oh, that's whack. I can do it myself. And that's what I did. That's the deal. Meantime, the trick is, while you're making money, you have to insert the message.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

His breakout hit was called "Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song." It upended the Hollywood status quo back in 1971 and received an X rating for adult content. It was dedicated to, quote, "all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man." It's about a man who was raised in a brothel and becomes a fugitive after saving the life of a Black Panther, a Black Panther who was being beaten by two white police officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You offer pretty good news to me slapping up on some white cops (laughter). Yes, indeed. I'm going to say a Black Ave Maria for you.

MARTIN: The film was the first of its kind. And it had a tiny budget of about $150,000. It went on to gross just over 15 million at the box office and is considered one of the most lucrative independent films in history. In 2008 on NPR, Van Peebles addressed the criticism that the film still provoked.

VAN PEEBLES: I made a film that made money. That changed everything. You can't have it both ways. Well, what is this, (mocking critics)? You want to win or not? You can't say one but, ah, I wanted to win this way. I wanted to win the battle. But you can't win a war with white gloves, not clean white gloves on.

INSKEEP: Agree with him or disagree, I love hearing him talk. Now, last year, the Library of Congress added "Sweet Sweetback" to the national film registry. His son, Mario Van Peebles, who wrote and directed films with his father, released a short written statement about his father's death. He said, dad knew that Black images matter. We want to be the success we see. And thus, we need to see ourselves being free.

MARTIN: Melvin Van Peebles hoped his work would leave an impression.

VAN PEEBLES: This gives voice to the voiceless. Wow. That's good enough for me.

MARTIN: "Sweet Sweetback" will be screened at the New York Film Festival this weekend for a 50th anniversary tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELVIN VAN PEEBLES' "SWEETBACK'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.