HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON IN WHITE COMPANY (AND ENJOY IT)NR
Fans primarily identify Melvin Van Peebles as the director of the seminal 1971 "blaxploitation" picture, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Isaac Julien's 2000 documentary Baadassssss Cinema reinforces that emphasis, but How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) is the first film to fully encompass Van Peebles' long, varied and impressive career.
In his feature debut, director Joe Angio traces Van Peebles from his poor beginnings in Chicago to his taking many odd jobs (including streetcar conductor) and his eventual success as an expatriate filmmaker in France (starting in the late 1950s), where he became a French citizen in order to qualify for a program that allowed him complete freedom in his artistic choices. When Hollywood came calling, Van Peebles was in a great position to call the shots, despite being African-American in an exclusionary industry (and he still had to circumvent the meddling on his production of Watermelon Man in 1970).
Van Peebles went on to make his first American independent feature, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, which was different from most other films-including the Hollywood "blaxploitation" movies to follow. Fellow helmer St. Clair Bourne points out that those "bastard children" of Baad Asssss (e.g., Superfly) removed the anti-establishment politics but kept the hip action; Van Peebles and his son Mario talk candidly about how difficult it was for Melvin to find work after the film's release, mainly because white Hollywood hadn't benefited from its success. Van Peebles turned to the theatre (most visibly, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death in 1972), and eventually back to film, but never compromised his provocative views. How to Eat Your Watermelon climaxes with Van Peebles being given the Legion of Honor prize in France, where, ironically, he is more highly regarded than in his own country.
Angio not only covers Van Peebles as a controversial director but also as an actor, singer and composer. Mainly, however, How to Eat Your Watermelon shows a man willing to be a provocateur no matter what the circumstance. Some of the warts in this warts-and-all look will probably alienate mainstream audiences, particularly the references to Van Peebles' sexual appetite and his penchant for pornography. But these moments fit into Van Peebles' life just as easily as his relatively recent and surprising plunge into Wall Street. (He started as a clerk, then became a trader, just to better understand the strange world of the stock market.) Van Peebles' performance art is of a piece, whether he's giving financial advice or singing to a nude woman on a cable-access porn show.
How to Eat Your Watermelon is competently assembled with many interviews with the subject, his family, friends and co-workers (Spike Lee and Gordon Parks appear briefly), and it features rare clips from Van Peebles' films and stage work. Frustratingly, Angio starts the profile with some provocative humor of his own (telling Van Peebles' life story through a spoof of a black-and-white instructional classroom short), yet he presents the rest in a traditional, humorless style.
By the end, viewers may not completely understand Melvin Van Peebles, whom one friend calls "enigmatic," but they will better appreciate what this artist has accomplished and how challenging it has been for him to achieve his many goals.