This abridged review of the Melvin Van Peebles documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) was originally published in a longer form on the movie blog Cinematical on January 20, 2006.
Melvin Van Peebles is a genius; that’s a fact, not a compliment. If it were a compliment, I’d have used an exclamation point at the end of that sentence, and I’m really not a big enough fan of his work to do so. What I am, though, is an admirer of his aptitude and hard work, both of which are prominently displayed in the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a phenomenal outline of the man’s prolific and varied life, directed by Joe Angio.
Van Peebles is best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, a surprise hit from 1971, which he wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited, and starred in. The low-budget film set records for independent cinema, served as the primary inspiration for its decade’s blaxploitation genre, and became a major influence on today’s Black filmmakers, particularly Spike Lee. Two years ago, its notoriety was given another boost, as its production was immortally dramatized in a movie made by Melvin’s son Mario Van Peebles, entitled Baadasssss!.
Despite maintaining a narrative focus on Melvin (it was partially adapted from his book Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifest), Baadasssss! is undeniably as much —if not more— about the junior Van Peebles, who at 13 appeared in his dad’s movie. Mario’s personal reflection piece is too subjectively skewed, and though he paid a balanced tribute to his father, he still failed to properly represent him, for what he truly is.
Angio’s doc, on the other hand, completely outdoes Baadasssss! with regards to Melvin Van Peeble’s true character and legacy. How to… not only features a concise, exhaustive compilation of footage and interviewees that spans half a decade and half a globe, but it pays sufficient concentration to each and every aspect and division of the man’s history. This includes his time spent struggling with his most famous work, and it makes a feature-length drama seem like an excessive and unnecessary idea in retrospect. It also includes his time as a painter, a poet, a novelist, journalist, astronomer, marathon runner, news commentator, and writer-director-producer of Broadway musicals, in addition to spotlighting some of his other film work.
Van Peebles is a total nerd, going back to a youth spent primarily in the library, and he’s a total stud, forever dividing his weeks among no fewer than three women at a time, each allotted her own permanently designated two- or three-night share. Nothing comes difficult to him. During his appearances in How to… he presents himself as intelligent, cool, funny, honest, unforgiving, and extremely pleased with himself. If he has any flaws at all I can’t remember one.
Something that Angio does not supply is Van Peebles’ IQ, the measure of which is the easiest and most acceptable way of defining a genius. I stand by my opening statement, though, and the doc supports it by pointing to an amazing assortment of evidence. A genius is not merely someone of intelligence or ability or inherent talent. A genius is best defined as someone with an innate thought process and problem-solving skill, which gives him an advantage in amassing intelligence, abilities, and talents. If the encouraging phrase, “you can do anything your heart desires” really means “any one thing” for us normal folks, for a genius it actually means “everything.”
Melvin Van Peebles taught himself how to compose and perform music by working with his own uniquely devised system of notation and direction. Melvin Van Peebles moved to Paris, quickly and comprehensively learned French, and then authored five novels in his new, second language. He even walked into the American Stock Exchange, trained himself as an options trader on a bet, and within years acquired enough of an understanding to write a laymen’s guide on the subject. If Melvin Van Peebles isn’t a genius, then I don’t know who is.
There is a significant difference in knowing that someone is a genius and merely believing it, yet the boundary is often unclear when discussing and praising artists. The idea can get pretty confusing when you realize that a real genius can produce a lot of bad work, stuff that fails commercially and critically, and a non-genius can produce a lot of great, even brilliant, work. It is often the case with art that chance is more powerful than intention.
I could pronounce Angio a genius after seeing his film, based solely on his ability to craft a perfect biographical doc — informative, entertaining and displaying a keenly appropriate use of the genre’s techniques — without the need of backing up my claim, but I couldn’t publish the statement in an encyclopedia unless I was able to prove it truthful. Though his doc is deserving of high praise, I would rather reserve such a pronouncement for later, provided he continues making films. I typically find it foolish to declare opinions of a presumptive nature on the success of a single effort.