How to Eat Your Watermelon in Front of White People (and Enjoy It)

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If there was ever a person who was a legend in their own time, it would have to be Melvin Van Peebles. Filmmaker. Author. Composer. Artist. Playwright. Stock trader. Stud. Van Peebles has done so much in his lifetime that at times it is difficult to believe his list of accomplishments— especially when he talks about them himself. Which is what makes Joe Angio’s How to Eat Your Watermelon in Front of White People (and Enjoy It) such a welcome and necessary documentary.

For those that don’t know who Melvin Van Peebles is, he is probably best known as the filmmaker responsible for the revolutionary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The making of Sweet Sweetback was chronicled in Baadassss!, the 2003 film directed by son Mario, who starred as father Melvin. And if all the elder Van Peebles had done was Sweet Sweetback, then Baadasssss! would probably be all that was required for history’s sake. But the truth is that Van Peebles had done so much more before Sweet Sweetback, as well as after, that a thorough documentary has long been in order.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in Front of White People (and Enjoy It) chronicles the life and career of Van Peebles, starting with his childhood in Chicago. Rather than offer a dry, academic overview of Van Peebles’ youth, Angio presents those early years in the form of an old-fashioned newsreel. This leads into Van Peebles’ time in the military, the writing of his first novel while working as a cable car operator in San Francisco, and his eventual relocation to Europe. Once in France, Van Peebles flourished as a writer before moving into film with his debut feature, Story of a Three Day Pass.

By the time Angio’s film finds Van Peebles back in the United States and making Sweet Sweetback, Melvin has already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. And as the rest of the documentary chronicles, Sweetback was just one scene in the much larger play of Melvin’s life.

Through a series of interviews and a mind-boggling wealth of archival footage, Angio paints a complex portrait of Melvin Van Peebles. In terms of old, archival footage alone that is showcased, Eat Your Watermelon is a tremendous accomplishment. The fact that all of this history, which was long ago captured on film, has now been woven into the larger contextual history of Van Peebles, makes this documentary all the more compelling. And the fact that this film was made while Van Peebles is still alive, as opposed to a posthumous memorial, gives the film an added sense of merit.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in Front of White People (and Enjoy It) is both entertaining and informative, without ever degenerating into being a sentimental handjob. It would be easy to deny or neglect the important contributions Melvin Van Peebles has made—it has happened to others that history has sadly forgotten. But thanks to Angio’s remarkable documentary, Van Peebles’ legacy has been duly noted.

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