Father of Modern African American Cinema (1932 – 2021)
Melvin possessed the instincts of a guerrilla fighter and a double-breasted smooth-talking gentleman. He was hilariously funny and deep thinking but incisive when he had to pull the trigger. In his own words, that meant adopting a singular focus to achieve his dream, by hustling and snatching impossible deals to make his movies. Melvin was also a master storyteller whose fascinating tales gave the impression he had lived more than once. It made him fearless and daring. One of the first things he showed me was a tattoo of dotted lines at the base of his neck. The words read, “cut on the dotted line if you can.”
We first met at a film festival in Italy during the early 1990s. I had been invited to show Ama, my film with Kwate nee Owwo. He was there to be decorated for his groundbreaking film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song”. Once we got introduced and shook hands, it was thrilling all the way. One moment he was the soft cigar-smoking, the well-spoken gentleman talking about his days in the American Airforce and moving to Europe. The next, he was this hilarious character from one of his movies or Shaft, prowling down alleyways, scat jiving, pulling the chics and saying goddam to racist cops.
Melvin inspired African American cinema during the 1970s. Historically, he was as significant as Oscar Micheaux. Hollywood kept him at arm’s length but that just fired up his pioneering spirit.
The day ended up at a flashy Italian disco where all the show-offs on the dance floor had to give way to Melvin, doing his Kungfu kicks, funky chicken and Bugaloo. Melvin was a great dancer.😂
In the morning, we met at breakfast and spoke at length. We were both in a relatively sober mood. Inevitably, I asked him about his classic film – the story of a streetwise stud who escapes from two cops by bludgeoning them with handcuffs. Forced to run for his life, Sweetback uses his extraordinary sexual abilities to slip and slide his way through the urban jungle. Melvin played the lead so I asked how he felt. He said he had since not had that much fun with his clothes on!
I noted the film was released in 1971. Melvin was quick to tell me what else was memorable that year. “Frazier beat Ali, Al Green released “Tired of Being Alone, Sly and the Family freaked everybody out with, “There’s a riot going on”. “Shaft, of course, was cool but Sweetback was special. It was the first film to use a soundtrack as original marketing too. Dig?”
We left Italy in high spirits. It felt as if my father had reincarnated into a film legend. There was no dull moment with Melvin.
In London, developments within the Black film sector led to the formation of Black Triangle Associates, made up of Paul Bucknor, Onye Wambu and myself. The opportunity came to see Melvin again. That was in 1992. We hired Metro Cinema in London’s West End and invited Melvin over to show his classic film and give a talk.
The other film on the bill was Talking Dirty After Dark, a comedy featuring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy. The event was a resounding success. It led to our acquisition of the Electric Cinema on Portobello Rd, which we turned into Britain’s first Black Cinema in 1993. That was a huge major prize. The Electric Cinema was the oldest cinema in Europe with a unique history. The story was received with incredulity in the British mainstream media. Most chose not to mention or discuss it. Before then, I met Melvin again at Cannes. I also met him again in New York in 1994 when Ama, my film with Kwate Nee Owoo was screened at the Lincoln Centre, as part of the African Film Festival of New York. It was a great event with many Black filmmakers from all over the place. The early 1990s turned out to be truly exciting days for Black Cinema.
Vistas of the Black film Renaissance
In 1986, I collaborated with Kwate Nee Owoo to make my first professional film, Ouaga, a documentary about the Pan African Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO. Those were heady days when African filmmakers were exploring aesthetic innovations that they felt could empower the emergence of a new independent cinema. A good number of African American filmmakers were interested in connecting with this new movement and I found myself helping to bridge the gaps. Melvin was my keen supporter and he did a great job connecting me to all the key filmmakers and journalists. All he had to do was pick up the phone.
Spike Lee was then riding high with Jungle Fever which was released around the same time as my film, AMA. Before then it was Mo Better Blues, featuring Denzil Washington. Melvin’s son, Marion was also making waves with New Jack City. So was John Singleton who had just released Boyz in the hood. I had met him in Ouagadougou with Akosua Busua. Ama was screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival and THE Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, founded by Ayuko Babu.
I met Melvin again in New York, this time with Paul Bucknor. Distribution of Black films was our focus and this led us to meet people who helped us to bring to the UK some of the incredible Black films released at the time – Menace to Society, Ernest Dickerson’s Juice with Tupac, Passion Fish, Meteor Man featuring Robert Townsend, Haile Gerima’s Sankofa and What’s Love Got to Do With it, featuring Tina Turner.
From New York, we left for Los Angeles and continued our excursion making friends in and out of Hollywood. Just before we left New York, Melvin took a dollar note from his pocket and gave it to me. “Don’t spend it”, he said. I promised not to and I still have it to this day.