Director Melvin Van Peebles dies aged 89 as Spike Lee lead tributes

Director Melvin Van Peebles has died aged 89 (Picture: Rex / Getty)

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles has died, aged 89.

The director, who was known as the ‘godfather of Black cinema’ and was behind Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, died at his home in New York on Tuesday.

His family announced the news in a joint statement with The Criterion Collection and Janus Films, with Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins among those paying tribute.

‘We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89,’ it read.

‘In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.

‘In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music.’

Tributes poured in for the filmmaker on social media (Picture: AP)

Son Mario Van Peebles added: ‘Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free.

‘True liberation did not mean imitating the coloniser’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.’

Some of the biggest names in film have offered condolences on social media following Van Peebles’ death.

Spike Lee wrote: ‘I am so saddened by the loss of my brother Melvin Van Peebles. [He] brought independent black cinema to the forefront with his groundbreaking film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

‘Melvin was a big supporter of my career. He even showed up to the set of Do The Right Thing. Damn, we have lost another giant! My condolences to the Peebles family.’

Ava shared a quote from the late star, penning: ‘“You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework you have. And don’t look outside. Look inside.” – the iconic artist, filmmaker, actor, playwright, novelist, composer and sage Melvin Van Peebles, who has gone home at the age of 89.’

Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins posted: ‘He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off.

‘The man just absolutely LIVED.’

MC Hammer tweeted: ‘Thank You, KING. It’s not only what you did but the times and circumstances you did them in. Dignified Innovator.

‘A filmmaker who was the essence and embodiment of indy film in “struggle times”.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is celebrating its 50-year anniversary (Picture: Getty)

‘The beauty is you lived to see the fruits of your labour birth and feed many.’

Van Peebles turned to a career in Hollywood in the 1950s, following a stint in the Air Force, and shot his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick, in 1957.

His first feature-length movie came a decade later, with The Story of a Three-Day Pass gaining notoriety with Hollywood producers.

In 1970, he was at the helm of comedy Watermelon Man, which told the story of a white, racist insurance salesman who wakes up to find that he is Black, and is alienated from those closest to him.

Van Peebles’ most notable movie came the following year, with the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a groundbreaking movie which followed the story of a man who kills white police officers who attacked a Black revolutionary, and went on the run.

The movie will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week, in celebration of the 50th anniversary.

As well as this, he was also a talented author and playwright, publishing many novels and short stories throughout his career.

Van Peebles is survived by sons Mario and Max Van Peebles, daughter Marguerite, and grandchildren.

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