salvation from blaxploitation: the children of directors save the lost films of their fathers

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salvation from blaxploitation: the children of directors save the lost films of their fathers


JUstine Henzell and Mario Van Peebles both know what it’s like to grow up on film sets as the child of a revolutionary director. Henzell was six in 1972 when his father, Perry, completed The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first feature film, starring reggae legend Jimmy Cliff as a fugitive whose musical success coincides with his criminal notoriety. Van Peebles even starred in his father Melvin’s third film, the 1971 underground hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which inspired the Blaxploitation genre.

As adults, each of them has now been instrumental in rescuing and restoring great films of their fathers that might otherwise have been lost or overlooked: Henzell’s more ruminating second feature No Place Like Home, which has been lost for over 20 years, and Van The Story of a Three Day Pass, The Story of a Three Day Pass, Peebles’ stylish debut album, tinged with New Wave, in 1967 , neglected at the time and later eclipsed by the more inflammatory Sweetback. Henzell laughs when I notice his father’s impetus to start his second feature film so quickly after the first. “He might have had momentum but he had no money,” says the 55-year-old, the ocean lapping on the shore of Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, behind her. “The film was shot in spurts as the money came in. He was completely broke after The Harder They Come. He himself had transported these cans around the world trying to sell them. The film still hadn’t paid back its investors and there it was doing something even more experimental.

“He was broke”: Justine Henzell on the set with her father, Perry, in 1968. Photograph: 2001 Snowbound

For the scenes in which producer Susan (played by Susan O’Meara) oversees the filming of a commercial for shiny shampoo on the beach, Henzell hired a separate US unit to do just that: advertise for real in 35mm while their own the crew filmed them doing it. Her daughter always seems astonished at her audacity. “It was real cinema verite,” she says. Maybe it was expensive, but no one could tell it didn’t pay off visually. For a film in which different facades are stripped away -om the emotional shyness of Susan to the postcard prettiness of Jamaica, which hides the country’s shaky future – it makes sense to show the illusion in its most brazenly alluring form. .

The film has so much going for it, including the rich, natural performances of a cast including young Grace Jones, PJ Soles (later Carrie and Halloween) and Rastafarian poet-poet Countryman. But the combination of erratic funding and impromptu, open filming meant production was constantly stopping. It was not until 1981 that Henzell obtained the funds to complete the final scenes; when he went to retrieve the negative of what he had already shot from the coffers of the film company in New York, it was gone.

“The role the film played in his life was one of deep disappointment and tragedy,” recalls Henzell. “It was something he had to give up. He said, ‘If I don’t forget this movie, it’s going to drive me crazy.’ His grief was so great that he never realized again. “It’s such a huge loss that we don’t have the benefit of what else he would have done. “

At least we now have No Place Like Home, finally pieced together and restored in a vivid, shimmering print, thanks to Henzell and enterprising projectionist David Garonzik, whose enthusiasm for The Harder They Come determined him to find the following . This materialized when hundreds of unclaimed boxes were discovered during an inventory at Universal in 2004. Without telling his father, Henzell flew to the United States to inspect them. “I held my breath as we opened the cans,” she said. “And when we didn’t smell the vinegar – which would have told us that the celluloid had broken down – it was a very moving moment.

How did his father react to the news? “He was a little incredulous. He had put it out of his mind and was nervous about letting it all come back because it had been a source of pain. “

The first Jamaican film… Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come by Perry Henzell. Photography: International / New World / Kobal / Shutterstock

He had also been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier. He died in 2006, but only after filming new material for the restored version, working on an acclaimed London stage adaptation of The Harder They Come, and attending the Toronto Film Festival premiere of an ongoing restoration of No Place Like Home. . “He hung around long enough to see these things happen,” Henzell tells me. “I think he felt, ‘OK. I can go now.

Van Peebles Sr, now 88, is in poor health, so it’s Mario, an actor-writer-director like his father, who speaks to me from New York. “My dad says he has CRS,” smiles the 64-year-old. “It’s ‘I don’t remember the shit’. But he did come to the premiere of The Story of a Three Day Pass, and he really dug it – he thought it looked good.

The film follows Turner (Harry Baird), a young African-American soldier stationed in France, who falls in love with a white Parisian, Miriam (Nicole Berger), on his long leisure weekend before taking up a promotion. It was made in 1967 only after Van Peebles was blocked by Hollywood. “The studios told him they didn’t need elevator operators,” his son says. “When he said he wanted to make films, he was told, ‘Well, we don’t need elevator operators who think they’re directors.’ He knew they were leaving money on the table because they weren’t making movies that black people wanted to see themselves in.

Natural… a young Grace Jones in No Place Like Home by Henzell.
Natural… a young Grace Jones in No Place Like Home by Henzell

Van Peebles Sr responded by moving the family to Paris. “I slept in a bathtub,” says his son. “My sister slept in the closet. Her father learned the language, wrote La Permission, a novel entirely in French, and then raised the funds to make it his first feature film. At the time, the anxious Turner looked out of step with the images of darkness in the movies.

“Sidney Poitier was so talented, educated and brilliant,” says Van Peebles, “but while he was filming Devine Who’s Coming to Dinner, my dad was filming in France this interracial love story where the characters are regular, flawed and fucked up. Turner is a total nerd! It’s almost a coming-of-age movie. My father was not interested in making us ‘other’. He made us ‘you’.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes showing Turner haunted by a self-doubting alter ego, berating him in the mirror. It’s a bold visual technique that Van Peebles Jr borrowed when he starred in Baadasssss !, his own 2003 film about the making of his father’s flagship work. In the original 1971 film, he appeared as the teenage version of the main character, Sweetback. In fact, it was her participation in a (simulated) sex scene at the age of 13 that still prevents a full version of the film from being shown in the UK, where the BBFC insisted it be. deleted. “I’m going to ask my dad if he’s going to do it again with me now,” he said.

Like father… Melvin and Mario Van Peebles.
“He dug it”: Melvin and Mario Van Peebles Photographie : Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

One of the most surprising qualities shared by The Story of a Three-Day Pass and No Place Like Home is the eagerness of these male directors to inhabit the female perspective. When Turner and Miriam first have sex, the film shifts from the illusory self-image of the man (“That Bridgerton idea of ​​himself in a flowing white shirt,” as Van Peebles puts it) to the fantasy of the woman. It’s equally radical in No Place Like Home to see the male lead role, a Jamaican fixer played by Carl Bradshaw, relished in shots taken from Susan’s perspective.

“I feel like The Harder They Come has a lot of masculine energy,” says Henzell, “while No Place Like Home is a very feminine film. He has a much more feminine look. My dad did a really good job getting into Susan’s head. When Carl and Susan have sex, it’s not just erotic – we’re so invested in her it’s more about the joy.

She speaks proudly today of being the guardian of her father’s legacy. “It’s an honor to be able to continue the work he started over 50 years ago,” she says. If she has one concern, it’s that her versatility could work against the new film. “It scares me that people go to No Place Like Home thinking they’re going to see The Harder They Come 2. These are different kinds of Jamaican love letters. This is why it was so important for him to make No Place Like Home. He wanted to show his range. Mission accomplished.

  • No Place Like Home and The Story of a Three-Day Pass are screened as part of the Cinema Rediscovered festival at Watershed Cinema, Bristol from July 28 to August 1 and nationwide on the Cinema Rediscoved tour from August to October . The more they come will broadcast on Mubi from August 2.

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