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Interview with Joe Angio

Director of How To Eat Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (TFF '05)

How To Eat Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), the vivid and revealing documentary about the life of Melvin Van Peebles debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. This month the IFC has chosen the film as the centerpiece of its Black History Month celebration, revealing Van Peebles as a lasting andd charismatic icon with an undeniable legacy as the father of a new style of independent and African-American filmmaking. In celebration of its televiion premiere, we sat down with director Joe Angio to discuss the making of the film and to clarify some common misconseptions about this legendary filmmaker.

What has been happening to you and the film since it’s premier at Tribeca in April of 2005?

JOE ANGIO: Actually, a lot has happened. I left Time Out New York just about a year ago- I was the editor in chief over there- mostly to just continue showing it at film festivals. There were 18 months of film festivals; the first nine months were pretty much US ones, and the last nine months have been international ones. Then we had our theatrical premier last January at Film Forum, [but] we never had [any other] real theatrical distribution . So we developed and implemented a web strategy that my partner, Michael Solomon, the producer, and I had come up with, which is really just to go out and hit all the key websites and key bloggers in the Indie film world- especially African American sites, film sites, cultural affairs sites, urban affairs site. It’s worked out great because IFC has been extremely supportive as far as promoting it. In fact, they hired for the first time ever, they said, an outside PR agency to really target urban press and black press.

I just finished two books. One is Adrift in Soho, by Colin Wilson. It's kind of a modern day telling of Down and out in Paris and London, if 1961 counts as modern day. And then the other one was Freakonomics. It's excellent. Just how it helps you ... not even change the way you ask about things. The ability authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have to ask the questions they did, I found amazing.

Children of Men, Just saw it recently and loved it. Why it hasn't gotten more attention is beyond me. I thought it was great. And recently, I Netflixed Liyla 4-Ever. It was awesome. And Clean, Shaven, the Lodge Kerrigan movie. It's excellent. Very powerful!

Listening to...

The new Tom Waits, Orphans. And Tortoise, who we actually used in our film. I have the box set, A Lazarus Taxon.

Why Melvin Van Peebles? How did you get so interested in his life and work in the first place? 

ANGIO: It’s interesting because I became interested in Melvin’s full story through the back door. In the '80s, Melvin had this five-to-six-year career as an options trader on the American Stock Exchange -- he was actually the first black options trader on the American Stock Exchange -- and a friend of mine, who was a colleague of his, was the first one to tell me of the totality of Melvin’s story. I was in film and the film world, so I had heard of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and Melvin, but I hadn’t seen it yet. But this guy said, “God, Joe. There’s this guy Melvin Van Peebles I work with here. He’s just amazing. He’s written music, and he’s lived in France and wrote five novels in French, and he’s a marathon runner….” So that was the first time I heard the story of him. Then just a couple of days later, I was out with a friend who’s a film editor, and he said, “Oh, I saw Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it just changed the way I thought about films.” So I went and rented it, and like anyone who sees Sweetback for the first time, you’re just like, what the hell? Especially when you think of the context of when it came out -- socially and culturally and politically, as well as how it predated MTV style editing.

So that was when the seed really got planted, and I decided it would be my next project. I was always shocked to learn that no one knew of him. Or if they knew of him, usual it went kind of like this: talking about Melvin Van Peebles, they think you’re talking about [Melvin's son] Mario {Van Peebles]. And then you say that it’s Melvin, and they say, “Oh, he did Sweetback.” That’s it. No one knew about the music; no one knew about the Broadway musicals; no one knew about the Wall Street stuff. That’s been one of the biggest surprises since the film’s been out. Even the people who are hard core Melvin fans just go, “Wow. We had no idea.”

Here’s the best example: at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I was sitting next to Mario, and Mario’s in the film, but he’d never seen it. Throughout the entire film, he kept nudging me in the shoulder, saying, “Where’d you get that!?” Cause we had all this archival footage. And at the end he goes, “Man, I thought half those stories were lies.”

So what does it mean to you that IFC has centered its celebration of Black History Month around the film?

ANGIO: I think it makes sense. I mean Melvin is just such an icon in the black community. He’s also a lightening rod as well. He had probably as many enemies in black America as he had supporters. He was all about burning down the doors -- storming the palace. The title of the film comes from the title of this essay that he wrote for this magazine article: in the immediate post Civil Rights era, there was this divide in black America among the more intelligencia who were middle class and talked about taking slower steps and assimilating, part of that being to avoid these stereotypes that white America had foisted upon them about eating watermelon or eating friend chicken. Melvin was having none of that, instead saying, “If I like to eat watermelon, I’m going to eat watermelon.”

For the record, he doesn’t like watermelon,, [but he though] “We didn’t impose these stereotypes on us. Someone else imposed these stereotypes on us. So why should we have to change the way we live just because someone else has imposed this idea on us?” So [IFC’s recognition] makes perfect sense right now because he’s just been a hero to so many people, especially to so many filmmakers. Spike [Lee]’s on the record. John Singleton. Julie Dash. They all said that Melvin was what inspired them to make films.

You mention is influence on all the African-American filmmakers who have followed him. Can you talk a little about exactly what Blaxploitation Cinema means, and what kind of impact it’s had on both black and white audiences?

ANGIO: Melvin has this very complicated relationship with the genre and the term "Blaxploitation." I mean, he gets credit, and rightly so, for kind of launching it all with Sweetback, but then he distances himself from it because of what happened with Sweetbaaaaack: suddenly Hollywood started seeing that there was a huge audience for these films, and they wanted to capitalize on it. So that whole wave of films that they started rushing into production were all studio films. And many times, in fact more often than not, while it was giving a lot of work to black actors, these films were written and directed by white directors and writers. But Melvin was all about getting minorities not only in front of the camera but behind the camera -- making movies, and getting their stories out there -- and that’s where the Blaxploitation genre, from Melvin’s eyes, did none of that. 

What was the movie for you that made you believe in movies? Did you have some kind of epiphany at some point where you thought, this is what I am going to do?

ANGIO: There is. You’d think the answer would be, like, Barbara Kopple or Errol Morris. But it was Once Upon A Time in America. (laughter) This big epic film. But it was the first time I really got … I don’t know. Something clicked about what a film can do and how it can just sort of transform you and the power that it has. And I’ve watched that movie so many times.

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