Film & TV

Melvin Van Peebles’s Declaration of Independence

Story of a Three-Day Pass (Film Forum)
America’s freest, most original filmmaker gets rediscovered, finally.

The final shot of Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 debut film, Story of a Three-Day Pass, celebrates FREEDOM. Turner (Harry Baird), a black GI stationed in France, had spent a weekend holiday with a white Frenchwoman, Miriam (Nicole Berger), enjoying all the imaginable pleasures a red-blooded American male could want. Now, after some minor social and personal roadblocks, the girl is gone — as Smokey Robinson sang. Left in a familiar, conflicted, patriotic place, he flops onto his barracks cot with a sense of relief. The pressure is off, momentarily.

That freeze-frame image, reminiscent of Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave breakthrough The 400 Blows, in 1959, should have electrified film historians; its ambiguity deserving at least as much discussion as Van Peebles’s later more renowned film, the X-rated 1971 sensation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which shocked Hollywood studios into making inferior copycat race-based productions. But as always, Van Peebles never fit the example preferred by cultural gatekeepers. His several careers as novelist, playwright, actor, musician, and filmmaker were too much for gatekeepers to comprehend, accept, or celebrate.

Story of a Three-Day Pass’s official film-culture revival this week at New York’s Film Forum is a way-late acknowledgement of Van Peebles’s black American independence, truly a most valuable player (MVP). Now the same culture monitors who had ignored MVP make reparations for their neglect, no doubt a reflex of the current white-shaming movement. But Story of a Three-Day Pass is enjoyable precisely because its eyes-open race-and-sex comedy defies the newfound righteousness and goes beyond the self-limiting expectations roused by BLM’s callow, insensible notions of black American identity.

GI Turner has escaped Sixties U.S. social problems much like the expatriate jazz musicians played by Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1962). He chose the enlistment opportunity that equalized young Americans even while bringing them into a structured system of service, with its promise of meritocracy. If Turner’s independence and patriotism seem alien today, Van Peebles accepts what appears to be contradiction as part of life.

MVP’s story (from his own novel) illustrates his radical, satirical instincts. Interracial sex, the easiest bourgeois provocation, reveals Turner’s personal identity and the extent of his social horizons. MVP’s concept of a cinematic French postcard begins with Turner’s tourism. He slowly enters a boîte (the origin of Spike Lee’s floating camera?) like Moses parting the Red Sea. This meet-cute fantasy image idealizes how many American GIs were able to explore their attraction to “the other” during overseas assignments. From there, when Turner actually meets Miriam, all stereotypes are dropped. Their verbal exchange (she says Formidable, he hears “Wonderful”) features the essence of biracial communication, hook-up, and fascination that make Story of a Three-Day Pass a key film about interracial attraction.

MVP’s story is tuned to his hero’s psyche. Turner’s split screen “Uncle Tom” mirror speech is not W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of the Negro’s double consciousness, but Van Peebles’s own — a man’s conversation with himself, complicated by British actor Baird’s reinterpretation of American experience, yet true to what worldly, sly-witted MVP knows. (The time-traveling analogies for sexual intimacy and colonialism are brilliant.)

In 1968, the year of both James Brown’s epochal “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, only MVP could merge cultural consciousnesses. He presented the service comedy, formerly a rite-of-passage genre (now lost to a generation that believes only in safe spaces, not patriotism), to examine Turner’s existential dilemma. (“The way a man handles himself in daily life is a good indication of the soldier’s performance in battle.”) MVP’s all-American irreverence parallels Brian De Palma’s Greetings and Altman’s M*A*S*H. Far from Vietnam, MVP mocks the military’s (America’s) peacetime bureaucracy, which makes its own subtle comment on the troubles back home.

James Baldwin in France should not be our only reference point for black American worldliness. Besides, Van Peebles wasn’t out to win the white establishment’s shame-faced approval. Turner rejects his sergeant’s condescension (“He thinks I’m a good Negro, a Negro you can trust to be cheerful, obedient, and frightened”) with the same sophistication that informs his observation of colonialist Francophile Africans at a Parisian café. Turner’s own cool-cat American civilian guise extends the joke. Even better is the café celebration scene in which three black brothers in sunglasses, fedora, and trench coats create their own Madison dance, as in Godard’s Band of Outsiders. It’s beyond Tarantino-hip, confirming MVP’s connection to the French New Wave. (Nicole Berger had appeared, memorably, in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s All the Boys are Called Patrick. This was her last film.)

When Hollywood’s Blaxploitation movement came about in the early 1970s, it employed a group of black multitalented performer-artist-directors who held the conscience of their times: Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Bill Gunn, and Gordon Parks. Their like is missing among today’s woke black filmmakers. Davis, Van Peebles, Gunn, and Parks (respectively in Cotton Comes to Harlem, Watermelon Man, Stop, and Shaft) understood the range of American sensibilities and possibilities; they weren’t told by politicians and media how to be. More important, these men knew where they stood as individuals, independent of social trends. And the films they made proved both their integrity and creativity.

Van Peebles is a native comic like Mel Brooks, and although comparisons are odious, one must point out a contrast: Van Peebles’s genius has kept him from receiving due acclaim in his own time, country, and culture. (Anyone fooled by Judas and the Black Messiah should school themselves with Van Peebles’s script for Panther, from 1992.) If Story of a Three-Day Pass doesn’t right that wrong, especially among wokesters Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, who never made a movie bold as this, it would only be because they are distant from MVP’s fundamental cultural inspirations: When Turner is restricted to the Army base, he is ordered to guide a tour for a group of ladies in hats from the First A.M.E. Church of Harlem. The satire is realistic but affectionate. Their beneficent appearance provides an unexpected fount of goodness, determination, and survival — only repeated on the screen in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 Beloved. Turner is reminded of freedom — and free will. We are reminded that, at the movies, freedom requires choice and vigilance.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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