Melvin Van Peebles was the director of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the very first Blaxploitation film ever (1971).
It was an outrageously defiant film for it's time as it featured a black man on the run after killing two white cops. One film historian described it as, "an open declaration of war on white America."
Peebles was in the Air Force where he was a navigator on a B-47 nuclear bomber, but got out in 1956. He was refused a job in the commecial airline sector and drifted to San Francisco during the first years of the Beat movement, becoming a gripman on a cable car.
He soon published his first book The Big Heart and would sell copies from a little table located at the end of the cable car line. He was soon fired by his boss who he says, "didn't think blacks should read, let alone write."
He also made 3 short experimental films while in SF. In 1959 he moved to Holland and then in '60 he hitchhiked to Paris.
There he showed his films. "They called me a genius and kissed both my cheeks. When the screening was over, I was standing on the Champs Elysees broke with three cans of film, two wet cheeks and not a word of French.
He stayed on in Paris as a street musician and taught himself French. Soon he began writing for French magazines such as Le Nouvel Observateau. In 1964 he published the first of a dozen or so novels in French. Then he began making films in French.
Sweetback was his breakthrough and he soon became a cultural icon in the Black is Beautiful movement in the US.
Now France is awarding him with the Legion d'Honneur.