“A Hymn From the Mouth of Reality”: Obscenity, Psychosis, Sweetback




A YOUNG RICHARD PRYOR sits inside a dark, nondescript bar. “California is a weird state,” he says, “because they have laws for pedestrians — you know, like, you cross the street — they have laws for pedestrians, but they don’t have laws for people at night when cops accidentally shoot people.” Looking just past the camera, the comedian then plainly asks: How do you accidentally shoot someone six times in the chest? To which his familiar barrel-chested but tight-lipped impersonation of a white police officer appeals, “Well, my gun fell and just went crazy,” and a small group of people laugh off-screen. Working out new material, Pryor isn’t so much sculpting a joke in this moment as he is extracting it from 100 years of civic ruination.

X.

In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America established a new film classification system that introduced the censorious and sensational “X” rating. That same year, in the wake of riots and uprisings across more than 100 US cities, white middle-class psychiatrists trading on racist tropes of sexual menace began diagnosing Black radicals with a form of paranoid schizophrenia they called “protest psychosis.” Three years later, when Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and (with a young Earth, Wind & Fire) scored Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song — about a male sex-performer-turned-revolutionary set in Watts, Los Angeles — the artist forwent MPAA approval, opting instead to self-classify his film: “Rated X by an All-White Jury.” His critique, though aimed at the movie industry, likewise adjudged these psychiatrists busy pathologizing Civil Rights movement rhetoric, Black Power militancy, and the “primitive” art they claimed induced paranoid delusions enfleshed in “hostile” Black bodies.

Revolutionary and reactionary, exploitative and anti-bourgeois, pornographic and avant-garde, Sweetback has long been credited as a progenitor of the 1970s blaxploitation film cycle, even if resemblance among the action movies born of Sweetback’s popularity and financial success was at times merely nominal. Van Peebles’s picaresque caper unfolds in the form of a vaudevillian mash-up of burlesque performances, gospel numbers, live sex shows, funk music, psychedelic visuals, and flamboyant agitprop aimed at American jurisprudence. Two LAPD detectives show up at a brothel to enlist Sweetback as an extra for a police lineup; in transit, the cops arrest and brutally attack a young revolutionary named Mu-Mu; Sweetback intervenes, beats the cops, and flees, endlessly running through the city. The remainder of the story “moves with the perpetual motion of fugitive cartography,” to borrow words from Michael B. Gillespie’s recent Criterion essay, “mapping Los Angeles with a renegade fury.” All the while, stylized expressions of schizophrenic symptomatology and paranoia converge throughout Sweetback’s protracted fugue state, as it were.

In recent years, film historians and scholars have begun reappraising Sweetback’s Black vernacular style with respect to the L.A. Rebellion film movement, as well as European New Wave cinema’s influence on Van Peebles while working in France during the late 1960s. Indeed, Van Peebles’s first film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), explored ideas of Du Boisian double consciousness rendered through playful formal inventiveness suffused with psychosexual melodrama. Upon news that the filmmaker, musician, composer, novelist, playwright, painter, and actor had passed away in New York City at 89 years old this past September, a virtual funeral procession followed, paying respects to the artist and his singular body of work. On her recently launched Black Film Archive, a momentous “living register of Black films made from 1915 to 1979,” Maya Cade created the site’s first comprehensive director’s page in honor of Van Peebles. And just days after his death, the Criterion Collection issued the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films boxset, adding the artist to its recently curated “Black Lives” collection online.

This celebrated reupholstering of Van Peebles’s movies exemplifies ongoing critical negotiations surrounding race, genre, politics, and prestige in film historiography (that Nicholas Forster has previously written about for LARB). Van Peebles’s music, equally illustrative of the political energies that Black musicians brought to the American film enterprise — particularly the stunning heterodoxy of Sweetback’s soundtrack as well as its complex relationship to the movie’s “Rated X” status — similarly warrants this attention.

Sweetback’s music, which was also released as a highly successful soundtrack album on Stax Records, fused traditional Black diasporic styles with newer electroacoustic composition techniques often used to signify paranoid ideation. The film’s scattershot uses of tape loops, repetitive melodic fragments, discordant intrusions of dialogue, voice-doubling effects, and asynchronous audiovisual editing can together be heard as signifying, or at least suggesting, dissociative auditory hallucinations. Historically, these paranoiac recording techniques are more commonly attributed to vaunted works of musique concrète and West Coast minimalism coming from places like the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Yet such accounts often conspicuously ignore nonwhite artists like Van Peebles, in part because they also elide less reputable art forms, particularly adult movie production, in which some avant-garde composers got their commercial starts. Van Peebles’s sound work carries with it traces of this coterminous relationship between experimental electronic music and “adults only” entertainment.

In 1968, Van Peebles released his debut album, Brer Soul, made up of nine erotic, tragicomic soliloquies he recorded live with a small jazz combo just off 42nd Street in Manhattan’s red-light district. It was here the artist developed his titular alter ego, an unruly voice that sounds as much like Dick Gregory and Rudy Ray Moore as it does The Watts Prophets and Gil Scott-Heron. This trickster character soon aurally appeared on the soundtrack for the director’s second film, Watermelon Man (1970) — also composed by Van Peebles — which even credits Brer Soul as the voice of the film’s music, further fusing the artist and his alter ego. When Van Peebles stepped into Sweetback’s starring role, he was simply completing the mischievous trinity of performer, protagonist, and acousmatic provocateur.

This figuration proved integral to Sweetback’s aesthetic radicalism, which officials condemned as a symptom of “protest psychosis” with long-lasting punitive and lethal effects. I should restate that a central contention of psychiatrists Walter Bromberg and Franck Simon, who introduced the term “protest psychosis” in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1968, was that the art and rhetoric of Back liberation literally caused delusions, hallucinations, and violent projections in Black men. Rehearsing the fundamentals of scientific racism with loud classist overtones, this diagnosis echoed previous pseudoscience, such as 19th-century physician Samuel Cartwright’s claim that enslaved Africans fleeing captivity did so because they suffered from a specific form of mental illness he called “drapetomania” (or, essentially, “runaway madness”). Theorized as a specifically Black form of schizophrenia, it also espoused the more sweeping suppositions of “social degeneracy” peddled by the American eugenics movement.

Furthermore, as scholars like psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl and media historian Jeffrey Sconce have written, when treatments for mental illness adopted increasingly severe punitive measures during the 1960s and ’70s, the psychiatric language of schizophrenia soon coursing through American media and entertainment became a complex metaphor for race and violence. Incidentally, both authors draw attention to an infamous 1974 print ad for the neuroleptic “anti-psychotic” medication Haldol that featured an illustration of a menacing, fist-wielding Black man — who, Metzl and Sconce also aver, unmistakably resembles James Brown — dressed in flashy raiment against a vague, fiery urban setting. (It is worth pointing out that Brown had scored two blaxploitation hits just the year before: Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.)

By that same token, “associations between blackness, madness, and violence,” in Metzl’s words, “functioned as forms of black autobiography long before they became tools of white projective identification.” A well-known precedent comes from Mamie Smith’s 1920 coded protest song “Crazy Blues,” recorded in response to a particularly violent summer of white supremacist attacks on Black communities, police brutality, and subsequent riots in over three dozen US cities, from Harlem, New York, to Elaine, Arkansas. Almost a century later, when his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly helped give sound to the origination of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” could waive Smith’s coded language: “Burn, baby, burn / That’s all I wanna see […] They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin’ / But homie, you made me.” And Christopher St. John’s 1972 film, Top of the Heap, a deeply experimental work released in the wake of Sweetback and Shaft, was quickly (and controversially) packaged in the emerging blaxploitation style with the tagline: “His rage was the illness of the times!” Sweetback is animated by this historically specific dialectical tension between different cultural forms of paranoid expression and racist evolutionary theories of mental illness.

In a 1966 The New York Times op-ed titled “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” Thomas Pynchon — who would soon become the literary Saint Dymphna of ’70s paranoia — wrote, “Far from a sickness, violence may be an attempt to communicate.” He then cited conversations with Watts community members about their memories of the previous summer, likening the uprising to creative improvisation in loose musical terms: “[T]hrough much of the rioting seemed to run, they say, a remarkable empathy, or whatever it is that jazz musicians feel on certain nights.” Indeed, this notion of collaboration was in large part why Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine when Sweetback came out, denounced the film, arguing that its hip emphasis on “individual acts” at the expense of “collective action” harkened back to the “pre-Watts days” of unorganized political struggle.

While reviewing Sweetback for The New York Times, critic Clayton Riley similarly discussed political radicalism and jazz in loose psychiatric terms. “What constantly captures the attention here,” he wrote, “is the madness of Van Peebles as an artist [who] possesses the kind of singular sense of purpose, the sort of outlaw consciousness that must have driven the energies of America’s premier creative psychotic, Charlie Parker.” After citing the country’s racial terrors and the saxophonist’s “beautifully unbalanced brain,” respectively, as impetus and accelerant for “the most righteous music this nation has ever heard,” Riley then declared: “Van Peebles utilizes that same kind of functional insanity.”

XX.

The “X” rating was not merely a scarlet letter of obscenity. An insignia of illicitness, it also represented marketing potential for so-called deviant art and entertainment. After 1968, producers of “adults only” movies began proudly touting their wares as X-rated. Soon, other types of artists, especially comedians, likewise adopted this new brand of solicitation. For example, Rudy Ray Moore’s 1970 party record, Eat Out More Often — where his toasting pimp persona and eventual blaxploitation hero, Dolemite, first materialized — read, “Rated XX For Strictly Mature Audience,” in bold typeface across the LP’s front cover. In enterprising fashion, Van Peebles similarly courted the X rating’s transgressive properties when he brokered a distribution deal with Cinematic Industries, an independent company that specialized in pornographic films, exhibited Sweetback in adult theaters alongside first-run cinemas, and, in addition to the movie and its soundtrack album, published a manifesto-inflected production diary — all of which bore the aforementioned “Rated X by an All-White Jury” seal.

But titillation was not Van Peebles’s only move. At the time of Sweetback’s production, the countervailing forces of economic disenfranchisement, urban riots, and white flight — all exacerbated by repeated calls for “law and order” central to Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign — had further compounded structural forms of historical paranoia that extended from post-slavery terror rooted in African American trauma on one hand and white fears of miscegenation on the other. Sweetback’s stylistic blend of urban noir, fugitive slave narratives, and the “Black Stud” stereotype refracted this particular confluence of paranoias, the “X” rating further signifying Van Peebles’s explicit engagement with formerly codified prohibitions against sex on-screen.

Early in the film, we see a bohemian sex show at the brothel where Sweetback works, a scene tinged with magical realism yet undergirded by miscegenation’s very real historical proscription. After Sweetback strips down to his signature derby, the show’s emcee presents an invitation to the crowd: “As a special added attraction, if one of you young ladies would like to step up and try this gentleman.” But when a young white woman rises to remove her dress, the brothel’s manager, standing wide-eyed behind two voyeuristic cops, emphatically shakes his head “no.” The visual punch line lands because the film’s audience knows the setup. As Linda Williams writes in her spectacular book Screening Sex, “Taboos of interracial sex [in American cinema] grew out of an American history that has covertly permitted white men sexual access to black women and violently forbidden black and brown men access to white women.”

Nevertheless, Van Peebles later presents spectatorship with a provocative reversal of this taboo in the film’s most elaborate set piece where, to escape the threat of an all-white motorcycle gang, Sweetback has to win a “fucking duel” by delivering a noisy orgasm to the gang’s female leader. (A year later, the groundbreaking hardcore film Behind the Green Door will go all the way by presenting Marilyn Chambers and Johnnie Keyes in a fully explicit interracial sex number, albeit one with a squicky representation of primitivist hypersexuality.)

On one level, this scene’s complicated spectacle of sex and violence loosely positions Sweetback within the late-1960s rush of fast-and-furious biker films like Born LosersThe Glory Stompers, and Hells Angels ’69, produced by exploitation powerhouse AIP. Yet, as a revenge fantasy, the particularities of the scene inevitably invoke the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, where he was stabbed to death by Hells Angel member Alan Passaro during a Rolling Stones performance. Infamously documented in the concert film Gimme Shelter, shaky footage of Passaro stabbing Hunter was repeatedly shown as evidence at the ensuing criminal trial. In January 1971, while production began on Sweetback, the Hells Angel was acquitted of murder charges on grounds of self-defense.

This tragic correlation further draws attention to the fact that, stylistically and politically, Sweetback tapped into the era’s countercultural psychedelic paranoia that, intertwined with the affective experiences of hallucinogenic drugs, can likewise be historically read through the psychotomimetic prism of LSD’s early relationship to clinical treatments of mental illness and its subsequent use by the CIA as a clandestine tool for amplifying paranoid states — a.k.a. “mindfucking.”

Many of the extended montages that show Sweetback running down streets, over bridges, through miles of concrete tributaries and spillways, along railroad tracks, and eventually into the Southern California desert toward Mexico, are shot through with what Van Peebles described in the film’s screenplay as “spooky psychedelia,” involving split-screen images, jumpy superimpositions, and lurid solarization effects. During these dizzying barrages of visual editing, one of the soundtrack’s hardest hitting funk rock numbers, “Come On Feet,” repeatedly plays, with the song’s jaunty rhythm section, jagged electric guitar work, and fitful brass punctuations propelling Sweetback along. All the while, Van Peebles sing-shouts, “Come on, feet / Cruise for me / Come on, legs / Come on run / Come on, feet / Do your thing.”

Sweetback’s imperative to move his feet seems to cite a popular vaudeville refrain uttered by countless Black and blackface performers, particularly comedians Mantan Moreland and Lincoln Perry. While its placement over a lively backbeat also recalls the story told in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 blues rag, “Hot Dogs,” wherein the song’s dancing narrator sings about having his legs broken by a cop busting up a juke joint: “Everybody got away but me / My old feets failed on me then / But you oughta see ‘em now.” There’s a similar levity to “Come On Feet” the first time we hear it in Sweetback. However, when the song repeats during increasingly frenetic sequences (evoking the McLuhan-chic freakout montages of Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip), where phantasmagoric images flash, cut, and conjure on-screen, this potential comedic valence is exchanged for feverish apprehension.

In further intimations of psychedelic delirium, once Sweetback finds himself alone in the desert, we (via his projected subjectivity) hear the intrusion of voices in call-and-response patterns evocative of both gospel music and schizophrenic dissociation. In one instance, while he searches for groundwater to clean a gunshot wound, a chorus of women sing “Wade in the Water” — an African American spiritual popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers early in the 20th century — along with Sweetback/Brer Soul and a clattering of unruly male voices:

“Get my hand on a trigger.”
“You talkin’ revolution, Sweetback.”
“Wade in the water.”
“Somebody listen to me.”
“If he can’t burn you out, he’ll stomp you out.”
“God’s gonna trouble the water.”
“He won’t waste me.”
“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Tambourine and handclaps. 
All together: “Run, Sweetback! Run, motherfucker.”

On the Sweetback soundtrack album, this particular piece of music also includes the sounds of gunfire, sirens, barking dogs, police blotter, and spliced snippets of dialogue with corrupt cops corrupting so casually that their effortlessness itself sounds sinister (the aural equivalent of a murderous cop’s hands in his pockets). The track list on Sweetback’s original LP sleeve even identifies several of these fervent vocal collages simply as “Voices.”

In his extensive work on race and late-1960s American minimalism — specifically early tape pieces by composer Steve Reich — music theorist Sumanth Gopinath has written how the sonic trope of representing affective states of interiority, paranoia, and even psychosis through manipulations of the voice partly stems from practices in 1940s and ’50s film noir. This aesthetic correlation between magnetic tape and mental disturbance then filtered into popular music during the 1960s and ’70s. While most readily associated with psychedelic rock, from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, we also find a prime example in Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” where he sings the sardonic line, “Nixon talking bout, ‘Don’t Worry’,” with analog tape delay applied to his voice, producing a paranoiac sound that distortedly loops like a siren. (Mayfield would soon record his classic blaxploitation soundtrack Super Fly.)

As if an act of premonition or foreboding or even foretoken parody on Mayfield’s part, it was only a few months after the release of this song that Nixon installed a sound-activated tape recording system in the White House in 1971, just before Melvin Van Peebles released Sweetback. That same year, an underground activist group identified as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI exposed the organization’s Counter-Intelligence Program (“COINTELPRO”) that, under the auspices of Director J. Edgar Hoover, spent years targeting, infiltrating, and discrediting a vast range of mostly leftist political liberation movements labeled subversive, including Civil Rights activists, Black Power leaders, and especially the Black Panther Party. And it’s here that we find one of the more damning and damaging effects perpetrated by the lingering notion of “protest psychosis”: the delegitimization of real paranoia and mental derangement triggered by manifest instances of actual persecution.

Amid the film’s transgressive tendencies, entrepreneurial spirt, and occasionally exploitative disposition, a historical counternarrative can be heard in the quixotic surge of Sweetback’s many voices.

XXX.

In May 2020, after former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, protests and riots erupted in my neighborhood. Minneapolis’s 3rd Precinct was soon infiltrated by militarized police, the constant air-swept tang of tear gas, and droning helicopters, ticker tape references to the 1960s and ’70s appearing all over as automatic shorthand for the moment. The New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris, in a more patently thoughtful manner, would soon refer to this as “The Moment.” He meant the singular moment of Floyd’s death, the subsequent local protests, “the bewildering madness” of additional police killings, and the allied uprisings “in more corners of the planet than seemed fathomable.” More concentrically, Morris was also describing the accrual of historic precedence extending backward to the abolition of American slavery in 1865, exactly 100 years before California police officer Lee Minikus pulled over Marquette and Ronald Frye along 116th Street in Watts, Los Angeles. From where I’m sitting, the final example worth pointing to here — in the wake of Minneapolis’s recent rejection of police reform and, thus, civic refusal to reimagine public safety — is my first, that of Richard Pryor and his role in the eminent concert film Wattstax.

The summer after Van Peebles released Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Stax Records organized the all-day, $1-per-ticket Wattstax concert inside Los Angeles’s Memorial Coliseum to commemorate the Watts Rebellion of 1965. The resulting movie features gleaming footage of numerous Stax artists — including the Staple Singers (introduced on stage by Van Peebles), Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Albert King, the Bar-Kays, and a roaring nighttime set by Isaac Hayes playing his blaxploitation showstopper “Theme from ‘Shaft’” — intercut with smaller musical performances set up around Watts and interviews with local residents. Like an exegete, Pryor appears throughout the film, delivering intimate stand-up inside a dark, nondescript bar. And some of this material would soon wind up on the comedian’s third comedy LP, That N——’s Crazy, also released by Stax the following year.

Running just over half an hour, the record spans topics from education, sex, drugs, poverty, violence, parenting, church, prostitution, gambling, and Dracula, all rendered through Pryor’s ebullient artistry. The tie that binds? Citizen-sanctioned police brutality: “Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass, man. You know? They really degrade you. White folks don’t believe that shit — don’t believe cops degrade. ‘Oh come on, those beatings, those people were resisting arrest. I’m tired of this harassment of police officers.’ Because the police live in your neighborhood. See?” The record’s title cites another joke Pryor tells in Wattstax, wherein his parents call a Black nationalist in their neighborhood “crazy.” But the phrase’s placement on the album cover — in quotation marks under Pryor’s name — clearly ascribes the phrase to the performer himself. In his recent book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce describes the historical “outlaw persona” invoked by Pryor’s album as “a highly politicized black vernacular archetype: a folk hero and vicarious insurrectionist for the radically inclined.” On the back cover of That N——’s Crazy, under nine photographs of Pryor arranged in a large X, it reads: “Rated X Uncensored.”

¤

Matthew Tchepikova-Treon teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, where he is currently finishing his dissertation on film sound, popular music, and American exploitation cinema during the global political drama of the late Cold War. His work has appeared in Jump CutFLOW, and The Soundtrack Album: Listening to Media(eds. Reinsch and Westrup).

 

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