The remainder of the film chronicles Sweetback's flight through South Central L.A. (now South L.A.) towards the Mexican border. Sweetback is captured by the police for the murders of the cops, but escapes when a riot breaks out. Sweetback goes to a woman he knows who can cut his handcuffs off; she makes him pay her with sex. With his handcuffs off, Sweetback continues onward, only to be captured by an all-white chapter of the Hells Angels. The female members are impressed by the size of Sweetback's penis, and after he gives one of them multiple orgasms during sex, they help him get to the desert. A white man sympathetic to his cause agrees to switch clothes with him, allowing the usually velour clad Sweetback to blend in. The police find Sweetback's foster-father, a blind, illiterate old man who reveals that Sweetback's birth name is Leroy. The film concludes in the desert, where the L.A. police send several hunting dogs after Sweetback. He makes it into the Tijuana River, where he kills the dogs and escapes into Mexico.
According to Van Peebles, during the first day of shooting, director of photography and head cameraman Bob Maxwell told him he could not mix two different shades of lights, because he believed the results would not appear well on film. Van Peebles told him to do it, anyway. When he saw the rushes, Maxwell was overjoyed, and Van Peebles did not encounter that issue again during the shoot.
The film was shot over a period of 19 days because all of the actors were amateurs, and otherwise, Van Peebles would risk the castmembers coming back the next day with different haircuts or clothes. He shot the film in what he referred to "globs," where he would shoot entire sequences at a time. Because Van Peebles couldn't afford a stunt man, he performed all of the stunts himself, which also included appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes. At one point in the shoot, Van Peebles was forced to jump off a bridge. Bob Maxwell later stated, "Well, that's great, Mel, but let's do it again." Van Peebles ended up performing the stunt nine times. Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea when filming one of the many sex scenes, and successfully applied to the director's guild in order to get workers' compensation because he was "hurt on the job." Van Peebles used the money to purchase more film.
Because it was dangerous to attempt to create a film without the support of the Union, Van Peebles and several key crew members were armed. One day, Van Peebles looked for his gun, and failed to find it. Van Peebles found out that someone had put it in the prop box. When they filmed the scene in which Beetle is interrogated by police, who fire a gun next to both of his ears, it was feared that the real gun would be picked up instead of the prop. While shooting a sequence with members of the Hells Angels, one of the bikers told Van Peebles they wanted to leave; Van Peebles responded by telling them they were paid to shoot until the scene was over. The biker took out a knife and started cleaning his fingernails with it. In response, Van Peebles snapped his fingers, and his crewmembers were standing there with rifles. The bikers stayed to shoot the scene.
Van Peebles had received a permit to set a car on fire, but had done so on a Friday; as a result, there was no time to have it filed before shooting the scene. When the scene was shot, a fire truck showed up. This ended up in the final cut of the film. Van Peebles was given a $50,000 loan by Bill Cosby to complete the film. "Cosby didn't want an equity part," according to Van Peebles. "He just wanted his money back."
Van Peebles wanted "a victorious film [...] where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other's eyes, looking once again like they'd had it." Van Peebles was aware of the fact that films produced by major studios would appear to be more polished than low-budget independently made features, and was determined to make a film that "[looked] as good as anything one of the major studios could turn out."
Van Peebles knew that in order to spread his message, the film "simply couldn't be a didactic discourse which would end up playing [...] to an empty theater except for ten or twenty aware brothers who would pat me on the back and say it tells it like it is" and that "to attract the mass we have to produce work that not only instructs but entertains". Van Peebles also wanted to make a film that would "be able to sustain itself as a viable commercial product [...] [The Man] ain't about to go carrying no messages for you, especially a relevant one, for free."
Van Peebles also wanted half of his shooting crew "to be third world people. [...] So at best a staggering amount of my crew would be relatively inexperienced. [...] Any type of film requiring an enormous technical sophistication at the shooting stage should not be attempted." Van Peebles also knew that gaining financing for the film would not be easy and expected "a great deal of animosity from the film media (white in the first place and right wing in the second) at all levels of filmmaking", thus he had to "write a flexible script where emphasis could be shifted. In short, stay loose."
After Sweetback received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America and a theater in Boston cut nine minutes out of the film, Van Peebles stated, "Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community. The Region 2 DVD release from BFI Video has the opening sex sequences altered. A notice at the beginning of the DVD states "In order to comply with UK law (the Protection of Children Act 1978), a number of images in the opening sequence of this film have been obscured.
The end of the film was shocking to black viewers who had expected that Sweetback would perish at the hands of the police—a common, even inevitable, fate of black men "on the run" in prior films. Film critic Roger Ebert cited the ending as a reason for the film not to be labeled as an exploitation film. Critical response was mixed. Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times described the film as "a series of earthy vignettes, where Van Peebles evokes the vitality, humor, pain, despair and omnipresent fear that is life for so many African Americans." The film was criticized for perceived elements such as poor lighting, negative women's roles, a limited performance by Van Peebles, and the exploitation of black cultural stereotypes. Stephen Holden in the New York Times called it "an innovative, yet politically inflammatory film." The film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 73%.
Huey P. Newton, devoting an entire issue of The Black Panther to the film's revolutionary implications, celebrated and welcomed the film as "the first truly revolutionary Black film made [...] presented to us by a Black man." Among the arguments that Newton made for Sweetback were that it "presents the need for unity among all members and institutions within the community of victims," contending that this is evidenced by the opening credits which state the film stars "The Black Community," a collective protagonist engaged in various acts of community solidarity that aid Sweetback in escaping. Newton further argues that "the film demonstrates the importance of unity and love between Black men and women," as demonstrated "in the scene where the woman makes love to the young boy but in fact baptizes him into his true manhood." For anyone who wished to become a Black Panther, the film was required viewing for all Panther initiates.
A few months later, Lerone Bennett responded with an essay on the film in Ebony, titled "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in which he discussed the film's "black aesthetic" and concluded that the film is "neither revolutionary nor black." Bennett argued that the film romanticized the poverty and misery of the ghetto and that "some men foolishly identify the black aesthetic with empty bellies and big bottomed prostitutes." Bennett concluded that the film is "neither revolutionary nor black because it presents the spectator with sterile daydreams and a superhero who is ahistorical, selfishly individualist with no revolutionary program, who acts out of panic and desperation." Bennett described Sweetback's sexual initiation at ten years old as the "rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute." Bennett described instances when Sweetback saved himself through the use of his sexual prowess as "emancipation orgasms" and states that "it is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary finally for anyone to suggest to black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to screw their way across the Red Sea. Fucking will not set you free. If fucking freed, black people would have celebrated the millennium 400 years ago."
Black nationalist poet and author Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) agreed with Bennett's assessment of the film, stating that it was "a limited, money-making, auto-biographical fantasy of the odyssey of one Melvin Van Peebles through what he considered to be the Black community." The New York Times critic Clayton Riley viewed the film more favorably, commenting on its aesthetic innovation, but stated of the character of Sweetback that he "is the ultimate sexualist in whose seemingly vacant eyes and unrevealing mouth are written the protocols of American domestic colonialism." In another review, Riley explained that "Sweetback, the profane sexual athlete and fugitive, is based on a reality that is Black. We may not want him to exist but he does." Critic Donald Bogle states in a New York Times interview that the film in some ways met the black audience's compensatory needs after years of desexed Poitier characters and that they wanted a "viable, sexual, assertive, arrogant black male hero."