It's 1970, and flush with a three-picture deal from Columbia Pictures, the first ever for a black director, Melvin Van Peebles (Mario Van Peebles) is looking for his next project. His agent (Saul Rubinek) wants him to do another comedy like Watermelon Man, but Van Peebles has a far more radical idea: He wants to make a film about a black super-stud who, prodded by white racism, becomes a revolutionary. Naturally, no studio in Hollywood will finance the film, so Van Peebles has to cobble the production together using borrowed money and seat-of-the-pants filmmaking techniques.
Pretending to make a black porno film so he can duck union regulations, Van Peebles assembles a multi-cultural crew, a mostly non-professional cast, and proceeds, in fits and starts, to film his pet project. Along the way, he has to bail out his camera crew when they are arrested by a suspicious white cop, stress causes him to temporarily lose the sight in one eye, and he has to appeal to Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter) to give him $50,000 so he can do post-production work.
Son Mario Van Peebles' retelling of this story works on a number of levels. It's a loving homage to those hippie-dippy days of yore, when free love and drug use created a multi-racial counterculture. Baadasssss! is also an interesting portrait of a father-son relationship, with the then teenage Mario (Khleo Thomas) constantly looking for approval from his prickly, self-absorbed but brilliant father. And it's the ultimate primer for indie filmmakers, an in-depth look at how Van Peebles made the picture he wanted to make despite the financial and cultural odds against him.
Baadasssss! ends with Sweet Sweetback's debut in a third-run Detroit movie house, where it soon becomes a hit with the local Black Panthers, and eventually the black community at large. With an inspired, Van Peebles-written tagline--"Rated X by an all-white jury"--the film went on to become the biggest indie hit of its time. It also ushered in the blaxploitation film movement, and made the elder Van Peebles a messianic figure in the black arts community.
Baadasssss! isn't perfect: It includes a little too much filmmaking minutiae for its own good, and might come off as a tad esoteric for those who've never seen Sweet Sweetback. But ultimately, it's a loving, even moving, homage to a man whose influence still reverberates today.