Chicago-born filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles made his feature debut outside America. He had to.
Melvin van Peebles arrives at the "Lawless" premiere during the 38th Deauville American Film Festival on Sept. 5, 2012, in Deauville, France. - Francois Durand/Getty Images North America/TNS

CHICAGO — We can thank France, not America, for the flowering of Melvin Van Peebles’ feature film career. The Chicago native, who grew up in suburban Phoenix about 20 miles south of downtown Chicago, died Sept. 21 at the age of 89. Without Van Peebles, there is no Spike Lee, among others. Van Peebles broke through with the outlandish studio-financed satire, “Watermelon Man” (1970), followed a year later by his self-financed, X-rated provocation (also a big success) “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Both are part of the newly available Criterion Collection “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Film...