Melvin was widely regarded as the “godfather of Black cinema,” and his most iconic film was likely Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film credited with kicking off the blaxploitation movement that also spawned films like Shaft and Superfly. Sweet Sweetback’s grossed an estimated $15 million on a budget of just $500,000 and Melvin wrote, directed, and starred in the picture, and also composed the music for the film.
The film depicted life in the ghetto through a distinctly Black perspective, and also offered a message of empowerment to its audience. “All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Melvin told Newsweek in 1971.
After making the film, Melvin produced several shows on Broadway and also got involved in options trading on Wall Street.