Opening with the dedication: "This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man"; a young African American orphan (played by Melvin Van Peebles' son, Mario) is taken in by the proprietor of a brothel in Los Angeles in the 1940s. One of the prostitutes there entices him to lose his virginity to her, and due to his sexual prowess and large penis, she nicknames him "Sweet Sweetback" (we later learn his birth name is Leroy). Sweetback grows up, and now played by Melvin himself; he has become the brothel's most celebrated sex-performer. After his show one night, two crooked cops arrest him. On their way to the station, the two also arrest a Black Panther named MuMu, and handcuff him to Sweetback. MuMu insults the officers, so the two stop and beat him up. Sweetback is angered, and attacks the officers. With the police after him, Sweetback flees to Mexico, aided on his way by the entire black community as well as by a biker gang who he impresses the female leader of by having sex with her. Does Sweetback make it? Yes, he does. That was part of what made the film so revolutionary.
Director Van Peebles was fresh off directing the race-reversal comedy Watermelon Man when he developed the idea for this film when he stopped his car out in the Mojave Desert one day. Because no studio would finance it, he directed, wrote, produced, scored and acted in the whole thing himself, up to and including doing his own stunt work. He was, however, able to score a $50,000 dollar loan from Bill Cosby. When the film was finished, it was rated X by the MPAA, inspiring the tagline; "Rated X by an all-white jury". Because of this rating, it couldn't be advertised in newspapers, so Melvin did the promoting for it himself too. What's more, only two theaters would play it. But despite all this, Melvin's hopes were not in vain. The film became a runaway success, grossing $4,100,000. It became required viewing of the Black Panthers. Because of its success, filmmakers started seeing the potential for profit in directing films catered to black audiences, and thus was born Blaxploitation . All-in-all, this film is essential viewing for anyone interested in either film history or black history.
In 2004, the aforementioned son, Mario, wrote, directed and starred in BAADASSSSS!, which dramatized the film's production and release.
In December 2020, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for National Film Registry.
This film provides examples of:
- B-Movie: One of the most important ever made.
- Black Is Bigger in Bed: The black main character is known for his large penis.
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: The source of Sweetback's nickname, having impressed the prostitute he lost his virginity with his sexual prowess.
- Biker Babe: One of Sweetback's many conquests.
- Blaxploitation: The Ur-Example.
- Fan Disservice: Did we have to see Beetle going number two with just a Modesty Towel on after showering?
- Greater Need Than Mine: Sweetback, given the choice of either MuMu or himself being rescued by the East Bay Dragons, decides to let MuMu get the rescue while he continues his Run for the Border: "Hes our future, breer take him."
- Informed Ability: Sweetback is considered a Sex God, but his sex scenes have him lazily laying on top of his partners, barely moving. Particularly odd given most of the sex scenes were unsimulated.
- My Friends... and Zoidberg: "Starring the Black Community... And Brer Soul."
- A Minor Kidroduction: The first scene set in the 1940s shows Sweetback's backstory, including having his first sexual experience with a prostitute.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Sweetback gets hit in the stomach by a swarm of buckshot while being pursued by cops through a desert. He tears a section of fabric from his shirt, pisses on it, rolls it in sand and uses it to patch up his wound.
- Pop-Star Composer: Earth, Wind & Fire scored the film.
- The Pornomancer: Sweetback seems to have sex with just about every woman he encounters.
- Professional Sex Ed: Sweetback, who is just 13 years old, loses his virginity to a prostitute.
- The Quiet One: Sweetback himself, who has about ten lines of dialogue in the entire film.
- Run for the Border: Sweetback flees to Mexico, with what feels like half the country's police after him. To the surprise of audiences at the time, he makes it, with the ending promising that at some point he will return "to collect some dues".
- Spell My Name with an "S": The movie title is often and understandably spelled wrong. (For the record, this spelling of Baadasssss has two A's in "bad" and five S's in "ass.")
- Steel Ear Drums: Averted. The police torture one of Sweetback's associates for Sweetback's location (information the man does not have) by firing a pistol next to his ears, which destroys his hearing.
- You Are a Credit to Your Race: A police chief makes a speech where he rants about how Sweetback escaping will cause "niggers" to uprise. He then apologizes to the two African-American detectives in his audience, and says that if they catch Sweetback, they'll be a tribute to their race.