Melvin Van Peebles had already toiled in a trade-hopping career (U.S. Air Force, painting in Mexico, crime reporting, acting, writing novels all over Europe) worthy of John Huston or Sam Fuller before he tried his hand at movies. His debut follows black American soldier Harry Baird as he savors his weekend pass after getting wind of a possible future promotion. Dashing off to Paris in hepcat suit, he ambles through strip joints and carnivals before bumping into white gal Nicole Berger at a go-go pub. Their interlude together, lilting and mutually liberating, inevitably veers from the idyll of beaches and hayrides to the coldness of the barracks when Baird's time runs out. If Sidney Poitier could barely hold hands with Katherine Houghton that same year in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Baird and Berger got no problem going downtown, their zesty fucking intercut, with disarming crudeness, with war carnage newsreel footage. The taboo aspect of the romance is not far from the characters' own minds -- about to tumble, Baird imagines himself as an aristocrat riding home to his white mistress, while Berger fantasizes about being ravished by a tribe of Mau-Maus. Van Peebles' technical jaggedness, not yet elevated to the radicalism of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, is waist-deep in nouvelle vague tropes: freeze frames, jump cuts, hand-held camerawork (including the floating first-person dolly that Spike Lee would later claim as his own), sudden flights of fancy, doting over its leading lady (the lively, doomed Berger, better known for taking a swan dive out a window in Shoot the Piano Player). In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce