It’s time that the title of Melvin Van Peebles’s movie musical Don’t Play Us Cheap take its place in the vernacular alongside “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” and similar statements of defiant self-defense said during times of political peril.
Van Peebles made his assertion in 1973, following the cinematic breakthrough of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song, when he endeavored to become a force on Broadway. Don’t Play Us Cheap was his second musical show in two years to receive multiple Tony-award nominations, both featuring brash, inventive displays of black-American temper. That emphatic title proudly warned those who would underestimate Van Peebles, thus creating a contemporary folk-art classic that he immediately (eye on posterity) transferred cinematically. It is now the great bonus of the new box set Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, just released by the Criterion Collection.
I first saw this rarely screened movie during the Nineties at the Museum of Modern Art. Its impression lingered and now strikes me as the most heroic counterpoint to black pop conventions ever made. In the post-Obama era — when black culture has been thoroughly coopted by mainstream media, trading idiomatic essence for political clichés — Van Peebles’s farcical fantasy about a Saturday-night party in Harlem reminds us of what we’ve lost.
By “we” I mean all of America, because Van Peebles — a man of nonconformist personality, as a writer, director, composer, and performer– produced works of quintessential American imagination and language. He defied the patronizing approval given to James Baldwin, August Wilson, and Spike Lee and had the good fortune to surpass them all. Don’t Play Us Cheap — with its immense charm, rousing musical turns, and undeniable folk wisdom — overturns the presumptions of every cultural institution now pledged to make statements on “diversity” and “equity,” instead of making art.
Van Peebles himself insisted on equality, won by the merit of artistic creativity and — most important — through the universal truth of his eccentrically drawn characters and their recognizable circumstances. Don’t Play Us Cheap elevates lowly caricatures from minstrelsy and Porgy & Bess via Van Peebles’s affable vision. He respects their vulgarity as signs of life, endows them with humor, intelligence, and resilience. (“Remember, we all is just human.”)
From the moment Aunt Maybell (Esther Rolle, before the TV series Good Times) throws a birthday feast for her niece Earnestine (pop singer Rhetta Hughes) and a circle of friends gather, the party becomes a microcosm of American blues and spiritual history. (What a treat when Joshie Armstead wails, “You Cut Up the Clothes in The Closet of My Dreams” and Mabel King bulges in a blond wig and Aretha-style pink-fishnet pantsuit.) Two red-suited imps (Joe Keyes Jr. and Avon Long) show up to wreck the party, attempting ruckus and devilment familiar from violent blues lore until they’re exorcised by the power of camaraderie and benevolent soulfulness. This is Van Peebles’s Pilgrim’s Progress subtext. (Long’s imp pines, “I cringe with disgust and shame / not for myself, mind you / but for the decadent slimy monster that bears society’s name.”) Also, think of the Uncle Remus stories imagined by a worldly genius.
Throughout this in vino veritas revel, every sip of Jack Daniels and every comestible gives the partiers sustenance. They dance to “unbreakable” vinyl records (causing the imps’ dismay) and sing Van Peebles songs that cleverly mix secular and sacred sensibility: “Old Brother got four things on his mind — Mama’s picture, sweet Lucy, Captain’s boot, and quittin’ time.” Aunt Maybell advises, “It makes no difference what people say,” and her neighborly chorus affirms “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
The film is rascally yet suffused with love in the writing, directing, performance, and filming. Van Peebles’s technique of superimposed collages attests to life’s abundance rather than orderliness. These superimpositions clash chaos against intellectuality, letting the joy of uncouth celebration best sophistication. This is not Tyler Perry’s inexcusable crudeness. Even when Van Peebles stages a naughty curtain call of his cast individually exiting a toilet, their smiles are beatific.
I don’t know whether uppity, pontificating James Baldwin ever saw a production of Don’t Play Us Cheap, or if he appreciated Van Peebles’s defense of good vulgarity, but I’m damn sure Barry Jenkins never did, to judge by his snooty Baldwin film If Beale Street Could Talk, in which social-justice inanities lacked the felt truths of Van Peebles’s urban philosophies (including the complications of light-skin versus dark-skin clans).
Van Peebles expands on the cultural myths, folk wisdom, and pleasure that Ossie Davis teased in another forgotten classic, Purlie Victorious, made back when black artists paid the cost to claim joy, to laugh among themselves, converting an ironing board into a banquet table — out of necessity.
Don’t Play Us Cheap resists the angry arrogance that stereotypes contemporary black culture. That pretense of social consciousness ends where Van Peebles already began: “Talk about being hip to things, are you hip to injustice?” (This was before “justice” became a pandering cliché by the likes of John Legend and Janelle Monet.) Broadway hack Kenny Leon continued this ruse at a recent Tony-awards speech that overlooked Van Peebles but praised dead black criminals and repeated demagogic protest platitudes.
The political tactic of encouraging Americans to be dissatisfied, always in revolt, robs black culture of its edifying richness. It plays Americans cheap. Van Peebles avoided activist indoctrination when one of his closing tunes counters, “We pick up our lessons from the school of living / Get our rules from the book of life.” Don’t Play Us Cheap speaks to this era of coerced conformity; it is a masterpiece about survival.