In the brisk, entertaining new documentary How To Eat Your Watermelon In Front Of White Company (And Enjoy It), director Joe Angio makes a convincing case that renaissance man Melvin Van Peebles has never gotten his due as a filmmaker, musician, writer, icon, and revolutionary. But in his bid to honor Van Peebles' achievements, he lapses into worshipfulness while gliding over thorny issues like Van Peebles' attitude toward women and skipping big chunks of Van Peebles' career altogether. A canny provocateur who transformed the phrase "Rated X by an all-white jury" into a savvy marketing hook, Van Peebles got off on inspiring both adulation and contempt, so the dearth of critical voices here feels dishonest and misleading.
After a stint in the military, Van Peebles moved to France, where he fell in with a clique of irreverent bohemian intellectuals and began writing novels in French before writing and directing first short films and then a feature. He moved back to the States, revolutionized independent and black film with the cultural big bang that is Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, had two musicals running on Broadway simultaneously, was nominated for a boatload of Tonys, and in the '80s became a trader on Wall Street and wrote a guide to commodities trading. Oh, and he also found time to help invent rap when not attending to his own personal harem.
Angio captures the outlandish twists and turns of Van Peebles' life with humor, color, and a welcome lightness of touch, digging up groovy old clips of Van Peebles sarcastically suggesting that hookers lend their beds to the homeless when not using them in a tongue-in-cheek local news commentary and performing on Midnight Blue. The film includes delightful ephemera yet skips over substantial parts of its subject's career. Van Peebles continued to write, direct, and act in films throughout the '80s and '90s yet Angio's film pretty much ignores everything that happened in his film career between 1973's Don't Play Us Cheap and 2000's Bellyful. Van Peebles has proven remarkably resilient, overcoming seemingly insurmountable hurdles and setbacks all his life. He could surely survive a more critical and complete look at his extraordinary life and times.