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Reacting to the Short Films of Melvin Van Peebles

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

2021 saw the loss of Melvin Van Peebles. A trailblazer in cinema who came into the art with his own voice and style. His cinematic language was unfiltered and this was unquestioned in every facet of his work which was not only film, but music, theater and literature. I acquired the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films box set from the Criterion Collection and want to reflect on the cinematic work of this legend who elevated Black consciousness. To begin, I provide my brief thoughts on three short films directed by Van Peebles.

Sunlight (1957)

A short film by Melvin Van Peebles about a black man who commits robbery to afford to marry a woman. There’s a sense of German expressionism here despite the overall production being flimsy. I was most impressed with the subject matter itself. In a world where people are concerned about the images of people, Van Peebles was audacious enough to present a black man on screen committing a crime. It’s nice that Van Peebles did not build to that rebel streak, he already possessed it.

Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957)

Not as engaging thematically as Melvin Van Peebles’ prior short film Sunlight. Three Pick-up Men for Herrick still provides a modicum of interest just to see how the story resolves. However the big takeaway is seeing Van Peebles direction improve a great deal. The score may be a determining factor in enjoyment as well. The craftsmanship from Sunlight to this short is a major leap for Van Peebles.

Les cinq cent balles (500 Francs) (1961)

Les Cinq Cent Balles is the short of Melvin Van Peebles that I feel best indicates the path the director would head in by time he makes Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Specifically when it comes to the composition of the shots, the scoring and the staging of one scene where the young boy gets into a physical altercation with another man who is attempting to get this franc-note out of a gutter. Again Van Peeble’s craft takes another leap making this the most complete of his short films.

These three short film showcase the vision that Melvin Van Peebles would bring to the art of cinema. There’s no slow build with his work, it definitely starts with a bang and these shorts give a clear indication to the path Van Peebles defining works of the 60s and 70s would be on.

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