In the 1960s, van Peebles was invited by Henri Langlois to show his short films at the Cinémathèque Française, and presumably it was there that he learned more about the French film industry – in particular the funds available for first time directors, and the general desire to see young directors get their start on the heels of the French New Wave. [open endnotes in new window] In order to access these funds, van Peebles became a French writer, writing for newspapers, and eventually writing five novels in French. In 1967, using French funding, he made the fiction feature, Story of a Three Day Pass. This film was made in the style of the French New Wave but with a story about race and U.S. Empire rather than young Parisians on the lam. The film follows a U.S. soldier stationed in Paris who falls in love with a white Parisian woman and in turn gets disowned by his fellow soldiers who report him to his captain. The captain rescinds his three-day pass and restricts him to the barracks for miscegenation; in this regard, it is worth noting that van Peebles was married to Maria Marx at the time, a white German woman with whom he had several children. Not only did the film receive critical acclaim abroad, it also played at the San Francisco Film Festival, where it received Hollywood attention. The great irony of van Peebles’s success at the festival in the city where he first started making films, however, was that he attended as the French delegate, championed by festival director Albert Johnson, who was both an advocate for African American filmmakers and a critic with interests in both global art cinema and third cinema. As a result, his transnational movement explains how van Peebles addressed Donalson’s second point, “the lack of a power base by blacks in the business of filmmaking,” since the film’s critical acclaim allowed him to enter the Hollywood studio system proper with Columbia’s Watermelon Man.
While he was able to successfully parlay his work on Three Day Pass into making Watermelon Man, working in the studio system proved deeply unsatisfying for van Peebles. As someone who envisioned himself an auteur, moving from a context which supported his creative vision (France in the 1960s), he now faced the restrictions of the U.S. studio system. The film follows Jeff Gerber, your average white suburban insurance agent, who wakes up one morning black. Eventually, Gerber leaves the insurance agency that has been exploiting black communities and forms his own company that serves these same communities. The screenplay was originally written by Herman Raucher, who considered the screenplay to indicate his participation in the civil rights movement. He penned the story to lampoon his liberal friends who were liberal regarding race only on face value, not unlike the theme of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In partial conflict with Raucher’s original vision, van Peebles changed key plot points, however, taking the story away from an affirmation of American exceptionalism of the kind seen in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Watermelon Man was another critical, and this time financial, success. Because of his success as a studio director, Columbia offered van Peebles a three picture deal. As the story goes, instead he made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In the following sections, I will examine the way he brought his experiences in France working as an auteur to bear upon the restrictive studio system. However, ultimately it was his desire to work outside of these restrictions that prompted him to move from his “first cinema” film to his “third cinema” film with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
While van Peebles himself never uses the term third cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song shares a number of features with Solanas and Getino’s manifesto since it develops an explicit critique of colonial structures in the United States that exclude people of color. This is clear from the narrative, where the hero Sweetback runs from and successfully escapes the police – “the man” – after preventing two officers from beating a black revolutionary. More significantly, van Peebles followed many of Solanas and Getino’s principles in the production of this film. Van Peebles demanded that at least fifty-percent of the crew be “third world folks,” difficult at the time because the film production unions were, in his words, lily-white. Other features include location shooting, the use of non-professional actors and community members, shooting on 16mm, editing according to concept and rhythm rather than narrative continuity, and creating a space for discussion after and through film exhibition. Rather than mirroring the polished, studio-style of Watermelon Man, stylistically the film is extremely idiosyncratic, which is not surprising considering van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, starred-in, edited, and composed its music. It proceeds not according to a clear narrative, but uses what van Peebles referred to as ‘globs’ – conceptual material he would shoot with the cast and crew on hand at that day, which added to the expressive nature of the film.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song did not offer up a wholesale rejection of Hollywood cinema, however, but something closer to what Mike Wayne discusses in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema. Wayne suggests many films exist less as a pure form of political or commercial cinema and instead oscillate between these modes, and their messages “change as they do so.” Van Peebles’ wanted to make a political intervention with his film, but he also acknowledged the fact that his film would not have an impact if people did not come out to see it. I discussed his approach in the introduction to this article: van Peebles argued that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song had to be “entertainment-wise, a motherfucker.” Rather than suggesting that this film would be a commercial film with political content, like Watermelon Man, however, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is explicitly political, closer to Solanas and Getino’s third cinema, but injected with commercial scenes and styles meant to engage and entertain audiences, ranging from chase-sequences, to musical interludes, to pornographic content. And like Solanas and Getino’s third cinema manifesto, van Peebles’s film embraces the anti-colonial political sentiment of the 1960s.
While Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the most obvious frame of reference for understanding van Peebles as a political filmmaker, my approach here suggests that his third film was the culmination of a much larger project. Reflecting on his impetus for going into filmmaking in the first place, he recounted in 1971:
“The biggest obstacle to the Black revolution in America is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man’s program. In short, the fact is that the white man has colonized our minds. We’ve been violated, confused and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide, the most effective and vicious racism has grown, and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.”
With this message in mind, van Peebles set out to make a film to begin the process of decolonization. Like the writers of third cinema manifestos – Julio Garcia Espinosa, Getino, Glauber Rocha, and Solanas – van Peebles’s work suggests that such a process could not come through the usual channels, because industries and aesthetics produce ideologies. In the following sections, I will illustrate the ways in which he plays various approaches to film in a minor key in order to deliver a critical race politics that provides expression not only for another community, but another history as well.
Stationed in France: Story of a Three Day Pass
and the emergence of an auteur
Story of a Three Day Pass details a short period of time in which an African American soldier Turner (Harry Baird) receives a ‘three day pass’ or off-station leave while stationed in France, during which he meets the white Parisian Miriam (Nicole Berger) at a jazz club. They begin a romantic relationship, which is cut short when they are caught vacationing on a beach by Turner’s fellow soldiers. The mere suggestion of miscegenation becomes enough for Turner to have his three-day pass revoked. The film resembles other films in the style of the French New Wave, unsurprising since it made in France using first-time director state funding, French crews, and French talent. With its focus on U.S. race-relations, however, it makes use of features commonly associated with the French New Wave in a way that suggests it simultaneously stands apart from that film movement. Through van Peebles’s editing and sound design, the film makes an anti-colonial argument regarding the use of colonized peoples as troops by revealing a biopolitical apparatus within the United States military that restricts and controls the rights and actions of African American soldiers.
I define Story of a Three Day Pass as being ‘in the style of’ the French New Wave because van Peebles is an outsider and latecomer to the wave’s boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while I also want to acknowledge how the film’s aesthetics are informed and made possible by the French New Wave as a predecessor. I am also careful to disentangle van Peebles’s own aesthetic interventions here from the French New Wave, such as his use of music that carries across all of his films. At the same time, van Peebles’s development as an auteur was made possible by his emerging from an auteur-friendly industry and he incorporates a set of qualities that might be thought of as a nod to young French directors that came before him. In the film, after the soldier receives his three-day pass, Turner wanders the streets of Paris like one of François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard’s aimless characters, visiting book vendors on the Seine, chasing girls, drinking Byrrh at a café, visiting burlesque theaters and dance halls. These sequences are shot in a fragmentary way, on location in the streets, with sudden cuts and close-ups amidst crowds on sidewalks or in clubs. The sense such filming and editing gives is that Turner himself has stepped into the same culture that the French New Wave depicted earlier. In this way, Turner’s physical exploration of the city is accentuated by the film’s aesthetic reflection on an earlier film tradition that similarly explored the city. Of course, the crew is also mainly French, and lead actress Nicole Berger is a French New Wave veteran, having previously acted in films by Eric Rohmer, Godard, and Truffaut. What characterizes this production process as different from a French New Wave film is that van Peebles consciously injects Turner’s racialized psyche into the film through his interaction with French characters, as well as through editing and sound design.
Linking U.S. race politics to the French New Wave constitutes van Peebles’s first transnational move, from which my article takes its title, but even more significantly he addresses the global politics of the U.S. Empire through the film’s critical consideration of the military use of African American soldiers. Just a year prior to van Peebles making Story of a Three Day Pass, the Black Panther Party called for “all black men to be exempt from military service,” for the reason that they should refuse to “fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized.” Such an argument situates African Americans as colonial troops. In this light, a politics of global, anti-colonial solidarity would call for withdrawal from the operations of the U.S. Empire’s military interventions. A year later, Story of a Three Day Pass makes a similar argument in this respect. The film begins with Turner having a conversation with himself in the mirror about a potential promotion he might receive, but the film formally fragments Turner, first via sound design, and then by visually fragmenting his self through two, simultaneous frames. Turner’s psyche takes on a slightly different voice, accentuated by a hollowness that seems to mark it out as not physically present – although curiously enough, the ‘disembodied’ voice is the one on the left in the image I include here, which is not underexposed like the ‘real Turner’ on the right. The disembodied voice tells Turner,
“Yeah, you’ll get [the promotion]. Yeah you’re pretty sure to get it… Uncle Tom.”
This moment is the first in a series of conversations Turner has with his self and demarcates the central concern of the film: his role in the United States military as an African American, including what is expected of him in terms of his future opportunities and also in terms of the way he is allowed to interact with the local population in France.
The script’s focus on Turner’s integration into white French society alongside his psychic acknowledgement that such integration is impossible continues throughout the film. As he explores the city, he runs into other black communities, but while he waves to black people in mutual acknowledgement, he does not join them in conversation. The emphasis on these moments remind the viewer that this is not a simple question of confidence for Turner, but a racially enforced relation between a white society with a history of colonization and a visitor from a country that understands its relation to race quite differently. When Turner returns to his hotel after asking Miriam to go to the beach with him, his split psyche emerges again. He tells himself in the mirror, “I’m sure she’ll come,” to which his other self replies, “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, baby. She ain’t coming.” Earnestly he tells his other self to the mirror, “I hope she comes.” These scenes where Turner’s psyche splits and he speaks to himself in this manner are literal manifestations of van Peebles’s argument that “the white man has colonized [African American] minds.”
Frantz Fanon made an argument about such a fragmenting of subjectivity earlier in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), based on his experience travelling from Martinique, a French colony, to France to study medicine. Turner’s move from the United States to France, however, is almost the opposite of Fanon’s transition from Martinique to France. While both find a metaphysical split as they interact with white populations, in Story of a Three Day Pass, Turner does not find this split in France, but brings it from the United States with him – and at times he seemingly finds this fissure mitigated in his interaction with French locals. Fanon describes this psychic split:
“the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.”
In Turner’s case, the civilization he finds himself in conflict with is white American civilization at large, and more specifically United States military command. While his psyche often comes across as antagonistic, intervening when Turner behaves too optimistically, a later conversation with Miriam illustrates that he acknowledges his racialized role as, following black radical politics, a colonial soldier in the U.S. Empire. When Miriam says, “I like your captain. He must be nice to give you a three-day pass and a promotion,” Turner replies, “No no no, he thinks I’m a good negro.” “Good negro, what is it?” she asks. He explains: “To my captain? That’s a negro you can trust. Trust to be cheerful, obedient, and frightened.” This kind of reflection, then, is also brought to the fore on the soundtrack through the audio collaboration between Mickey Baker and van Peebles.