Melvin Van Peebles is still best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), the incendiary independent film that opened the door for the blaxploitation era — a case of co-opted revolution if ever there was one. Less well-known are Van Peebles’ other early directorial efforts, Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) and Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973), both making their DVD debut this week thanks to Xenon Entertainment. Van Peebles shot Story, his debut feature, while living in Paris as a black expatriate trying to figure out, as he says in the documentary included on both discs, “how to get the man’s boot out of my ass.” If Story is any indication, the full answer wasn’t to be found in France. An earnest drama about an African-American soldier, stationed in Europe, who begins a weekend affair with a young Frenchwoman, and the racial animosity they face, Story draws heavily on the loose black-and-white, on-location shooting style of the early French New Wave, with little of the editorial innovation. Think Hiroshima Mon Amour without the elliptical flashback structure. It wasn’t until Van Peebles returned to the States and made Sweetback that he found his voice not only behind the camera, but in the editing room. It was a freewheeling, but always pointed, montage that he put to equally good use in Don’t Play Us Cheap, an infectious urban fairy tale that unfolds entirely in a small Harlem walkup where a half dozen friends are partying on Saturday night. Esther Rolle (Good Times) plays the host, who, along with her niece, must contend with two minions of the devil who’ve been sent to break up the proceedings. A musical that pops with gospel, soul and blues numbers, the film is shot on an obvious stage set, but Van Peebles moves his camera in time with the boisterous proceedings and unleashes a barrage of dizzying superimpositions, fast cuts and other visual delights.
Other recommended new releases: The Aristocrats (VHS-DVD), The Virgin Spring (DVD). Also released this week: VHS-DVD: Flightplan, The Fog.
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DVD: Dallas: The Complete Fourth Season; Fearless Fighters; The Hunt for Eagle; Love, Ludlow; My Big Fat Independent Movie; My Date With Drew; One Kombi Nation; The River King; Thumbsucker; Thunderbolt; The Tomorrow Show: Punk & New Wave.