is unquestionably a renaissance man and his reputation as a living legend is indisputable. The incomparable Van Peebles has found success in every medium of the entertainment industry as a director, producer, writer, actor, composer and editor. From music (a three time Grammy nominee) to television (an Emmy-award winner) to Broadway (eleven Tony nominations) this trail blazer and trendsetter does everything his way. While he is best known as the “godfather of independent film and modern black cinema”, he also has the honor of being another first—the first African-American trader on the American Stock Exchange.
Melvin Van Peebles was born in Chicago. After graduating from college two years before most, Van Peebles joined the Air Force where he became the youngest member of the Strategic Air Command. Upon leaving the Air force he went to Mexico made his living as a painter for awhile and then it was on to Europe to do graduate study in Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam in Holland. Several years later Van Peebles moved to Paris, taught himself French and worked as a journalist for a French Newspaper. Adapting Chester Himes’ writings as an ongoing cartoon series for “Harikiri” the legendary French Magazine, ignited a fire and Van Peebles went on to write five French language novels. One of those novels became the basis of his first feature film, La Permission: A Story of a Three Day Pass which won him the Critics Choice Award at the San Francisco Film Festival. The rest as they say is history.
Unfortunately, sometimes the reality of people who are simply trying to maximize their personal potential is often complicated by prejudice, discrimination, intolerance and systemic destruction of the ego. In their struggle for liberation pioneers like Van Peebles, with their discontent and refusal to accept the status quo, create eruptions so significant that they become the bedrock upon which new opportunities are born. Looking over the life of Mr. Van Peebles we can now on truly fully assess the enormity of his actions on History. Van Peebles calculating merger of his roles as a businessman and artist not only assured his projects meet with success, but opened the door for many African American Artist. Best said by his son, Mario Van Peebels, and I quote: “My father crashed the gates, then along with Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis broke down Hollywood’s color barriers. They made it possible for all of us to come marching up the hill: Spike Lee, the Brothers Hudlin, John Singleton, Bill Duke and myself.” In 2004 Mario Van Peebles honored his father by making Baadasss the story of his father’s struggles through Hollywood. The movie won the Academy’s Spirit Award. Today the Hollywood machine counts African-Americans filmmakers among some of their most lucrative producers.
Van Peebles, the recipient of major industry awards and honorary degrees was, in 2001, recognized as a Chevalier when he was bestowed France’s highest honor “The Legion D’Honneur” for his significant contribution to the arts in France. Today, Van Peebles works are taught at distinguished institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Columbia, as well as at schools of higher learning in France, Germany, London and Japan. Scott Smith Film 100 has recognized him as one of the 100 most influential people in this century in film. Mr. Van Peebles has also now been immortalized in wax.
Today, Mr. Van Peebles focus is on giving back even more through his Foundation. Founded in 2003 the mission of the Foundation is to provide educational assistance for economically disadvantaged youths through yearly scholarships and grants in any field of study but especially in those fields that promote excellence in the hard sciences and business.