Melvin Van Peebles - Essential Collection

Independent films don’t get any more baadasssss than with Melvin Van Peebles at the helm.  Recognize that right now and we can remain on speaking terms.  The collective black consciousness is alive and well in his filmography and, thankfully, his independent output left a lasting mark on pop culture which is felt heavily in the wake of his passing.

Which is why, with this release, the Criterion Collection pays the writer, director, composer, actor, and social commentator so much respect.  His voice is STILL needed, yet there are few to pick up the torch and carry on.  Thankfully, Criterion has assembled four films from his guerilla-styled filmography to offer on blu-ray.  Named the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Collection, Criterion gives fans of his edgy and angsty work a lasting tribute, with each movie receiving a proper 4K digital restoration, bringing to life many frames of absolutely breathtaking street-level poetry.

"Independent films don’t get any more baadasssss than with Melvin Van Peebles at the helm.  Recognize that right now and we can remain on speaking terms"


Unable to breakthrough here in the United States, Melvin Van Peebles, who rightfully acknowledged Hollywood’s racist ways during the time he was active in film, brought his vision for cinema to France as he fired his first warning shot.  It was there, riding the tail end whirlwind of the French New Wave scene, where he wrote and eventually put together The Story of a 3 Day Pass, his first film, which is way more psychological than it is given credit for.  

The Story of the 3 Day Pass documents one interracial couple’s struggle to remain solvent in France when an aimless furlough results in a whirlwind romance that one officer has to walk away from, cursing its futility.  The subversive drama - which stars Harry Baird as Turner, an African American soldier stationed in France, Nicole Berger as Miriam, the white shop clerk he becomes interested in, and Hal Brav as his racist Captain - is smartly written, solidly performed, and could never have been made in America.  It absolutely crushes its message and leaves its audience, based on this modern-day viewing, absolutely shook by its sarcastic overtones.

Watermelon Man, the auteur’s one and only foray into the strings of Hollywood financing, sees Comedian Godfrey Cambridge as an extremely bigoted white insurance salesman (Cambridge in whiteface) waking up as a black man in suburbia. Doubling as political commentary and social satire, Watermelon Man is completely on point as Jeff Gerber finds out the hard way what it means to be black in America.  In a state of panic, he tries to scrub the pigment away, but nothing works.  Soon enough, he is accused of robbery (for simply running to catch the bus) and finds out that so much of his world has changed now that he is indeed black.  From being objectified by women to having to teach karate to the youth, he finds the world a much different place now that he is no longer white.  Franz Kafka who?Melvin Van Peebles - Essential Collection

The quick-witted comedy was a hit for Columbia Pictures, but Van Peebles wanted the freedom to do it his own way with his next flick, a blaxploitation classic. Thus, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was born!  Written, co-produced, scored, edited, directed by, and starring Melvin Van Peebles, no studio wanted to touch the project, so Bill Cosby stepped in with a loan to the auteur in order for the film to be completed.  The tale of this son from a whorehouse is now regarded as a cult classic, unsimulated sex scenes and all.

It’s no surprise either.  This is a movie about a man who finally figures out how to get "The Man"’s foot right out of his ass.  He takes control and, named for his large penis and sexual powers, Sweet Sweetback mounts more than willing women on his way to freedom and a life away from police brutality.  It’ll cost him, though.  As such things normally do, but Sweetback isn’t turning back on his objective.  

The final film in the set is Don’t Play Us Cheap, the film version of Van Peebles’ Broadway musical.  Full of gospel, soul, and tons of blues for its cast - which includes Mabel King and Esther Rolle - this film, as a follow-up to Sweetback, absolutely rocks the block!  With musical direction from Harold Wheeler, this musical is about a pair of devil-bats (it’s a thang!!) who take human form and attempt to break up a house party in Harlem.  Full of loud voices and even louder tunes, Don’t Play Us Cheap might not be for everyone, but it sure as hell is entertaining!

This EXPLOSIVE blu-ray set from Criterion Collection is now available!

5/5 beers

Melvin Van Peebles - Essential Collection

Blu-ray Details

Home Video Distributor: Criterion
Available on Blu-ray
- September 28, 2021
Screen Formats: 1.37:1; 1.66:1; 1.85:1
: English; English SDH; English SDH; English SDH; English SDH

Discs: Blu-ray Disc; five-disc set
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A

Director, writer, composer, actor, and one-man creative revolutionary Melvin Van Peebles jolted American independent cinema to new life with his explosive stylistic energy and unfiltered expression of Black consciousness. Though he undeniably altered the course of film history with the anarchic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, that pop-culture bombshell is just one piece of a remarkably varied career that has also encompassed forays into European art cinema (The Story of a Three Day Pass), mainstream Hollywood comedy (Watermelon Man), and Broadway musicals (Don’t Play Us Cheap). Each facet of Van Peebles’s renegade genius is on display in this collection of four films, a tribute to a transformative artist whose caustic social observation, radical formal innovation, and uncompromising vision established a new cinematic model for Black creative independence. Also included in the set is Baadasssss!, a chronicle of the production of Sweet Sweetback made by Van Peebles’s son Mario Van Peebles—and starring the younger Van Peebles as Melvin.


The new 4K digital restorations of all four films, approved by filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, are brilliant in their scope and in their handling of some pretty grisly images.  


The uncompressed monaural soundtracks for The Story of a Three Day Pass, Watermelon Man, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song are included and there is a RIPE 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for Don’t Play Us Cheap.



  • See Special Features.

Special Features:

Complete with a book featuring essays by film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie, and Lisa B. Thompson and new cover art from Emory Douglas, with design by Slang Inc, the supplemental items are loaded with the good stuff.  Look below!

  • Baadasssss!, a 2003 fictional feature film based on director Melvin Van Peebles’s diaries from the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, directed by and starring his son Mario Van Peebles, with commentary by father and son
  • New conversations between Mario Van Peebles and film critic Elvis Mitchell; producer Warrington Hudlin and critic and filmmaker Nelson George; and scholars Amy Abugo Ongiri, Gerald R. Butters Jr., and Novotny Lawrence
  • Audio commentary by Melvin Van Peebles from 1997 on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Three short films by Melvin Van Peebles: Sunlight (1957), Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957), and Les cinq cent balles (1961)
  • How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a 2005 documentary on Van Peebles’s life and career
  • The Story Behind “Baadasssss!”: The Birth of Black Cinema, a 2004 featurette
  • Melvin Van Peebles: The Real Deal, a 2002 interview with the director on the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Episodes of Black Journal from 1968, 1971, and 1972, on The Story of a Three Day Pass, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Don’t Play Us Cheap
  • Interview from 1971 with Van Peebles on Detroit Tubeworks
  • French television interview from 1968 with Van Peebles and actors Harry Baird and Nicole Berger on the set of The Story of a Three Day Pass
  • Excerpts from a 2004 interview with Van Peebles for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program
  • Introductions to all four films by Van Peebles
  • Trailers

Blu-ray Rating

  Movie 5/5 stars
  Video  5/5 stars
  Audio 4/5 stars
  Extras 4/5 stars

Composite Blu-ray Grade

4.5/5 stars



Melvin Van Peebles - Essential Collection