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Remembering Melvin Van Peebles, the Fearless Filmmaker Who Liberated Black Cinema

Melvin Van Peebles, who died Sept. 21 at 89, was not the inventor of Black cinema, but it’s no exaggeration to say that he smashed open the door to Black cinema as we know it. It’s a door that, until he came along, had been wedged tightly shut — by Hollywood and by mainstream American culture. There were a handful of Black actors who were stars, like Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson, and a handful of films by Black filmmakers, but there was still a vast roster of things that Black artists working in the movies could and could not do. Van Peebles stood in front of his audience, holding that roster in hand, and burned it.

He was a novelist, a playwright, a recording artist, an actor, a director, a groundbreaker, a visionary: the filmmaker as one-man band. In key ways, he changed movie history, and if you believe in movies as much as I do, that really means that he changed history, period. He made it possible for a great many people to see themselves on the big screen in a new way, and therefore to believe in themselves in a new way. He created a mirror. His audience supplied the gaze.

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