The film opens with the lines “Starring the black community” and “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who are tired of being held down by the Man.” Sweetback, adopted into foster care, becomes a servant at a brothel and loses his virginity at a very young age (the repeating credit sequence of the prostitute’s orgasm). As a man, he performs in sex shows condoned by white police. All the white characters in the film speak like tape recorders – flat and colorless, almost nonsensical speech. Sweetback is arrested, the cops promise, as a distraction from their covert activities. He ends up beating the cops with his handcuffs still on when they begin to beat MoMo, the other guy in the cop car, who insults the police. Sweetback escapes and is beaten. He escapes again, trading sex for the removal of his handcuffs. He and a friend stumble into a Hell’s Angels den. To escape, Sweetback “pays” with sex, “fucking” a white woman in front of all the Hell’s Angels. She experiences wild pleasure. They leave and the rest of the film is occupied by increasingly paranoid, lonely montages of Sweetback fleeing the police in the desert. He trades clothes with a white hippie, disguises himself from the police once more by pretending to be having sex in the bushes, and finally makes it across the border to Mexico. The film ends with shots of the dead police dogs in the river, whose stones are dotted by blood. The screen reads: “WATCH OUT. A badass nigger is coming back to collect some dues.”
Melvin Van Peebles stars in and directs this film, often called the first of the blaxploitation genre. Many blaxploitation films have similar themes (orchestral, improvisational soul/funk soundtracks, a black here sticking it to the Man by a sort of trickster cunning, an overdetermined black male virility and fixation on the sexuality of black bodies, etc.). Still, it may be unfair to label the film this way, since Peeble’s goal was to draw attention to issues facing black culture while providing enough entertainment to garner wider audiences. It is retroactively labeled blaxploitation because it revealed to Hollywood the market for films about black heroes like Sweetback. It came out the same year as Shaft, which may have been the real start of the genre.