'Sire, this is not a homage to brutality, that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality' (Prologue)
Though the film was made and released in the 1970, it was not submitted to the BBFC for classification until 1996, when the video version was assessed. The late 1980s had seen the rise of a new wave of new African American film making, which traded on, criticised and satirised 1970s’ Blaxploitation films. Starting with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and the Wayans brothers I’m Gonna Git you Sucka (1989), new black directors were exploring the cinematic heritage of their fathers’ generation rather than turning out replica comedy martial arts films like the Dolomite series.
All of this black cinema action piqued interest among audiences about the Blaxploitation movies of the early 70s. While not the most famous Blaxpoitation film - Coffy, Foxy Brown, Superfly and Shaft share that award - Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was the first and thus the originator of the genre. In 1991 Melvin’s son, Mario, directed the straight gangster film New Jack City, and curiosity about his father’s work increased.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song tells the story of Sweetback, raised in a brothel and initiated sexually at a young age, he is working as a performer in a sex show/brothel. Interestingly, voyeuristic sex clubs where black ‘performers’ were watched by white customers were a feature of 1920s Harlem during the ‘Jazz Age Renaissance’. The club is raided by police and Sweetback taken for questioning.
On the way, he witnesses the police beat up a black man, he retaliates, beating up the police then flees. The remainder of the film follows his journey as a fugitive, his attempt to reach Mexico and his attempts to avoid the brutal pursuing police, as he is driven to increasingly violent means to stay free.
Passed uncut in 1996, a resubmission in 2005 had cuts made to the opening sequence where young Sweetback, aged 12 or 13, is sexually initiated and named Sweetback by a much older female prostitute.
The viewer could until 2007 see what appears to be a young teen, well under the age of consent, lying on top of an adult actress, with both miming sex. The younger man ‘s buttocks back and chest are shown along with his face. Concerns were obviously raised in 1996 along with the possibility of cuts under The Protection of Children Act 1978.
At that time, the BBFC suggested to Melvin Van Peebles that he should consider re-editing the opening sequence to remove the footage of the boy miming sex. The BBFC then received a letter from the production company and two sets of signed consent and contract information from someone claiming to have been playing the part of young Sweetback and one other part and confirming he was over the legal age to participate (18 years old). These assurances were accepted and the video released uncut.
However, the Van Peebles dynasty were continuing to explore Blaxploitation as a theme and Mario Van Peebles’ documentary Baadasssss! How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass was released in 2004 (2003 in the US). In it, Mario tells the audience that the actor playing young Sweetback is in fact himself aged 13. Advice taken from senior legal experts when Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was resubmitted to the BBFC in 2005 was in no doubt that the opening scene of mimed missionary sex between two naked people, one of whom is known to be a minor (under 18), would be considered indecent and lewd by a UK jury. So The Protection of Children Act 1978 applied and cuts or other means of obscuring the image were required.
The Protection of Children Act 1978 prohibits the possession or creation of an indecent image of a child. A ‘child’ is a person under 18 and ‘indecent’ is defined as lewd or indecent as decided by a jury. An image may be a photo or pseudo photograph (Photoshopped image) or a modified photograph since May 2008 (ie rotoscope or line drawing effect programme) or a moving image.