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‘He Was Just This Real Icon for Me’: Melvin Van Peebles’ Former Secretary, Actress Elisabeth Omilami, Reminisces on the Icon of Black Cinema

The death of the actor and writer Melvin Van Peebles has impacted many in the entertainment world, including actress Elisabeth Omilami, who served as Peebles’ former assistant. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, CNN broke news that the beloved filmmaker of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” died in his New York home. He was 89 years old. 

Omilami got a front-row view of the filmmaking genius while working as the personal secretary for Peebles’ production company YEH in the late 1980s. In an interview with Atlanta Black Star on Thursday, Sept. 23, Omilami admitted she hasn’t spoken to Peebles in years, but has always admired his passion for Black storytelling. 

Melvin Van Peebles and his son, Mario Van Pebbles/Instagram

“He was just this real icon for me and to have the opportunity to work with a creative person like that was just a dream for a girl coming from the South, who was a theater major,” Omilami said. “He had already had a big impact on my life in college.” 

The “American Soul” star described Peebles as a “disciplined individual,” who took morning runs through Central Park and “strategically” ushered his son, Mario Van Peebles, into the film industry.

“Watching him strategically set Mario up for how to take headshots and how to be this romantic lead and how to oil his body so that he would look a certain way in the pictures for the ladies,” Omilami recalled. “Because Mario [was] extremely handsome at that time, even now, and just to see him get him ready for Hollywood was just fantastic.”

Omilami suggesed Peebles is “one of the biggest hidden secrets” of her generation and one of the “greatest unknown black classical playwrights.” His influence ultimately laid the foundation and groundwork, she said, for today’s filmmakers, including Haile Gerima and Oscar-winner Ava Duvernay.

“Melvin Van Peebles led the way for an Ava DuVernay. He led the way for many of these black filmmakers today and they don’t know anything about him,” Omilami said. “So I was fortunate enough to be able to be with him every day.”

As co-founders of one of Atlanta’s earliest performing arts companies, The People’s Survival Theater, Omilami and her husband, acclaimed actor Afemo Omilami, recognize the importance of supporting Black artists and writers in the theatre industry. She only wishes Peebles had continued his career as a playwright, connecting theatre with authentic Black stories. 

“There’s the disconnect in our culture between the value of theatre and our ability to teach our history and tell our stories,” Omilami expressed. “I had hoped that Mr. Van Peebles would continue to be a storyteller, but he decided to go the route of filmmaking.”

Elisabeth Omilami most recently appeared in the 2019 films “The Best of Enemies” and “Final Count.” Since then, she’s been spending most of her time as CEO of her father’s nonprofit organization, Hosea Helps, preparing for the grand opening of its food bank in Atlanta.

“I’ve just been spending all my time with Hosea Feed the Hungry [and Homeless] getting ready for the holiday season and feeding people, giving assistance, taking care of idle survivors,” Omilami said. “That’s kind of overshadowed my career as an actress. But one thing about acting is that everybody got to have a grandmama in something. So maybe I’ll get back to it. I hope so.

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