The Film That Made ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ Possible

“The Story of a Three Day Pass” was based on one of the novels Van Peebles wrote in French, winning him a grant and a spot in the country...


“The Story of a Three Day Pass” was based on one of the novels Van Peebles wrote in French, winning him a grant and a spot in the country’s directors’ guild. In 1967, he premiered the feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival — as part of the French delegation — next to art-house giants like Satyajit Ray and Agnès Varda. The movie’s title in French was “La Permission,” but Van Peebles took permission for himself.

Turner’s weekend leave should be the most ordinary thing in the world — a soldier’s escape. But it can’t be carefree for Turner, whose white commanding officer makes a big deal of trusting him with a promotion and a three-day pass. In a mirror, the goofily hopeful Turner sees his sarcastic reflection talking to him: the promotion, his mirror self says, is just a reward for being an obedient “Uncle Tom.” Van Peebles pits the two Turners against each other in a bewildering split screen.

That kind of double consciousness, and the feelings it churns up, loom over Turner’s journey. The soldier does have one perfect moment, early in his Paris trip. He steps into a bar, shades on and ready to unwind. Except he doesn’t walk — he glides. The camera keeps him at center, poised and cool, as he moves through the drinkers and dancers. You might recognize the same dolly shot from Spike Lee’s movies, transporting you into the dream of a moment. But here it is in 1967 — the unmistakable flourish of a Van Peebles joint.

At the bar, Turner picks up a demure Frenchwoman, Miriam (Nicole Berger, who co-starred in the French new wave classic “Shoot the Piano Player”). There’s a sweet, awkward innocence to their flirting across language differences and dancing to the turtlenecked house band. They plan a trip to the countryside the next day. But Van Peebles shows how their experiences couldn’t be more wildly different.

The two get settled in a Normandy inn, and their inner monologues are revealed in fantasy sequences during sex. You might say Van Peebles doesn’t mince images: Turner visualizes himself as a squire returning to his estate and his maid Miriam, while Miriam sees herself running through a jungle, seized by African tribesmen, one played by Turner. When it comes to technique, Van Peebles is fearless, using hard cuts in edits and Godardian music cues, as well as collaborating on the score.

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