An Interview with Mario Van Peebles
At fourteen, Mario Van Peebles, son of revolutionary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, made his acting debut in his father’s 1971 release, Sweet Sweetback’s Badaasssss Song. In the film, he begrudgingly (though you’d never know it) played Sweetback at various monumental moments in his youth, including the loss of his virginity. A sex scene would be horrifying enough without the added terror of being an adolescent, not to mention being in front of a crew that included your own father. To remain cost-effective during production, Melvin also insisted that Mario scrap his hard-earned afro. In the end, the mighty afro reigned supreme, a wig was purchased, and eventually, Mario began to see the lessons his father was offering up.
Mario went on to study at Columbia University and sharpen his business teeth working for the New York City mayoral office during the Ed Koch era before establishing himself as an actor and director with films like New Jack City, Panther, and Posse. Stridently aware that his father’s legacy deserved to be divulged and understood, he cowrote, directed, produced, and starred in Baadasssss, a film that recreated the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and addressed the often turbulent relationship between a father and son.
Mario Van Peebles and I met for breakfast at a North Hollywood diner. He is energetic, extraordinarily polite, and smells fantastic. Yes, how terribly unprofessional of me. But it must be said. While he is exceedingly well-read and fervent on a variety of subjects, you cannot ignore the fact that you are immediately at ease around him, as he smells familiar, like bergamot and Ivory soap.
I. “IF WE SHOW THE DOMINANT CULTURE THAT WE’RE ‘COLORED’ AND NOT ‘BLACK,’ THEN THEY’LL LET US COME IN AND SIT AT THEIR LUNCH COUNTERS.”
THE BELIEVER: Were you hesitant to play your own father in Baadasssss, or was that something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning?
MARIO VAN PEEBLES: I realized the only way I was going to make this film and not turn it into cinematic Wonder Bread was to do it myself. I know one guy who has studied this sucker for years: me. And I know one actor who is going to be there on time, not give me any shit, know his lines, not be high, and not be snorting something: me.And I can get me to work for free anytime I want me to. Because me has got to be there. I mean, after all these years of me sleeping with the director, it’s got to pay off! [Laughs]
BLVR: You used some footage from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and it’s occasionally difficult to distinguish between you and your father.You also used television and film images from the period, which helped lend a point of reference.What was the inspiration for that?
MVP: I always knew when I wrote Baadasssss that I wanted to set up the cinematic climate that existed then. It’s a matter of historical, political, and thematic context. Even some movies in the late sixties were showing black folks as trying to be colored. Colored is slightly different from white. If we show the dominant culture that we’re “colored” and not “black,” then they’ll let us come in and sit at their lunch counters and it’ll all be good and they’ll recognize us as a minority. So across the board, people of color were marginalized. If you show that in the cinema long enough, and people believe that imagery, then they feel marginalized as human beings. What I was intending to do was set it up and show the kind of imagery that was being fed not only to us but to the entire world.
BLVR: That’s an important element that’s usually overlooked. And it certainly shows the importance of what your father was doing.
MVP: It was a pretty radical jump forward. We had been saying, “We shall overcome someday,” and my dad said, “No, we are going to overcome today. This crew. Today. We will do this. Right now. This is what’s going to happen.” Malcolm X said, “If they don’t want you in the restaurant, make your own restaurant.” My dad said, “If they don’t want you in their movie, make your own movies.” Rather than complain about it, he gets up and does something about it. When they reviewed Sweet-back, they were like, “Well, technically it’s off. The colors are weird. Even the sound is garbled .We can’t hear it!” Well, they’d never heard Ebonics before! When something comes out of nowhere that they don’t understand, it’s like the feudal system being taken down with gunpowder. I don’t always agree with my dad, but I admire what he stood for.
BLVR: What about the rest of the entertainment industry? Do you find paths cleared because of what your father did?
MVP: Sure. I can now have a unionized multiracial crew. My director of photography is a sixty-three-year-old Jewish cat, the wardrobe girl is a sista with a big ’fro, and the set decorator is a Japanese dude. It was great that we could pull together and do that, that it’s possible. That was exciting. But when I sent the script out, I still had to send it to a certain old boys’ club. They wrote back and said, “Can you make it a hip-hop comedy?” and “Can you make it more”—oh, what was the code word they used?—“Festival friendly?”
BLVR: Festival friendly? They really said “festival friendly”?
MVP: Yeah. In other words, if it’s not going to be hip-hop, ghetto comedy for that audience, can you make it more for the Lost in Translation audience? See the dilemma? You don’t see a lot of complex father-son stuff, or even mother-daughter stuff, in cinema for black folks. It doesn’t happen. You don’t see complex characters that are flawed. And they kept saying, “You have got to make Melvin more likable.” And, you know, my dad always said, “I know I wasn’t… um…”
BLVR: I heard that he insisted, “Don’t make me too nice.”
MVP:Yeah! I mean, he wasn’t nice. He was like the Great Santini back then. Eternal fascism. [Laughs] One of my things with him was that he sort of involved us in the war without explaining the battle. But how much of the battle can a kid understand? I remember one time, his agent took me to buy a bike, and when I had to return it [at Melvin’s insistence], the agent said, “Well, that’s too bad, you may never get another one. Your dad is going to lose all his money and your college fund, and all you have to do is get him to do a comedy. ”And my dad wouldn’t. He could have gone on and had his picture in Jet magazine with some bling-bling on his hand, with a nice, big house and a couple of dogs and said, “Here I am, a black person. We too can do it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But he didn’t do that and—oh! By the way! [Mario has his fists in the air, bouncing in his seat and grinning from ear to ear.] I have got to tell you. OK, OK. I was walking by a store near the house of my editor on this First Amendment piece I was working on, right? I’m looking down and I hear this voice go, “Mario! Mario, look at me! Buy me! Buy me!” I looked up in the window, and sitting there is the exact remake of the Schwinn bike that I—
BLVR and MVP [in unison]: —had to give back!
MVP: It was the exact same bike! They had a limited-edition reissue, and it was the only one. So I bought it, and my son Mandela told me, “Granddad owes you. He should pay for that bike.” And he did. My dad put the money in my hand and said, “I want to pay for that bike.”
II. “THE KKK BURNED A CROSS ON MY GRANDMOTHER’S LAWN AND SAID, ‘WE HOPE YOUR DAUGHTERS MARRY NIGGERS.’ AND SHE SAID, ‘THANK YOU, SO DO WE.'”
BLVR: In Baadasssss, I was struck by the scene when the audience shows up for the screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, and little Mario—Khleo Thomas—is there in the center of it. Do you remember the feeling, vibes, power, whatever, in the theater that night?
MVP: It was so awesome.There was this lady in the theater, and my dad tells this story: this old woman was in the theater saying,“Let him die!” Because it was out of the realm of possibility that a black man would get away from the police. Out of the realm!
BLVR: Another scene that really stood out for me was the depiction of Melvin’s creative process. He nearly shuts himself off from everyone and becomes oblivious to the clutter around him. You portrayed that process really honestly, and I think a lot of people are going to identify with it.
MVP: Great! Great! [He raises his hand and begins to swing into a high-five. I meet his hand with the worst demonstration of this activity I have ever attempted in my life. I actually pause to look at my palm for a moment, half-expecting to find something broken on it.] I’m glad you got that! I thought, OK, in a dance movie, you can show the evolution of the dance steps. In a music film, you can show the beginnings of the music being put together. With writing, what do you do? Watching writing is like watching paint dry. So I thought the thing to do was give my dad these other voices, the voices of self-doubt. It was the negative Melvin that comes to the door.And the negative Melvin is always way cooler than we want him to be.The negative voice was the hardest one to beat. But then he says,“Fuck you! I’m going to do it! Are you in or are you out?” If I could show that process, and take it inside the head of the creator, then you would get it.
BLVR: There were a couple of lines of dialogue in Baadasssss that I wanted to talk about. One was near the beginning, as Melvin was plotting out his film and listing the things that would have to be a given. He said he would make a film for “all of the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted.”
MVP: It starts off with a guy who is a very clearly flawed street hustler with a get-mine mentality. But through the course of the movie, he winds up with a no-I-gotta-stand-up-for-this-other-guy-so-we-get-ours mentality. And who helps him escape? The Mexican Americans, the workers. And the white cracker guy who switches clothes with him. Sweetback has to learn to survive from all the disenfranchised. When people watch Baadasssss, they’re like, “Hey, he’s still H.N.I.C.: Head Nigga In Charge.” He could reach people of all colors, and not at the exclusion of other people. That’s the key. The movie wasn’t at the exclusion of white folks, or yellow folks, or any folks. It was a unified movement.
BLVR: What, do you suppose, did Sweetback mean to the young revolutionaries at the time?
MVP: It was a demystification of the film process.They’re like, “Oh! We can do that?” And Hollywood would say, “No, no, you can’t.You need five official makeup people, four sets, twelve of these, five of those, six of them, blah, blah,blah.”Most of the dominant culture has many advantages, but one of the disadvantages, especially at the time of Sweetback, is that they couldn’t understand anything outside their game. That left them totally wide-open to something that they’d never expect. And that’s why the studios immediately clamped down.The danger of letting Melvin do it again was,“Now he might say something!”
BLVR: It was a pretty iffy time to make such a movie, although it worked out beautifully in the end. Meaning, it seemed to hit exactly when it was needed the most.
MVP: It was a dangerous time to be making a movie. It was real because they killed kids. They killed Martin Luther King, Jr. They killed JFK! And RFK! They were going down and shooting up Panther Headquarters! It was a real threat. It wasn’t like,“Well, I’m not wearing a turban, no one’s looking at me.” Back then, they were looking at you.
BLVR: Is that why Melvin was more or less locked out of Hollywood after Sweetback?
MVP: My dad likens it to the metaphor of a pool hall. You go into the pool hall, and you’re scratching and fumbling, and the stakes get really high.When you win at that table, you walk away with the money but you can’t go back. Hollywood was like that pool hall. He never got invited back. Sweetback made a lot of money and instead of inviting him back, they just started to imitate that formula.
BLVR: Do you and Melvin maintain a good balance between your professional and father-son relationship?
MVP:We have relationships as filmmakers, as father and son, and then as friends that just hang out and clown each other a lot. We were checking into a hotel room once, and there was an attractive lady behind the desk. She goes,“Oh, Mr.Van Peebles, I love your work!”Well, turns out she’s talking to me. She’s showing us to the room and helping us around and giving us a few little extras and stuff. And I remember my dad’s going along a little sour. So we check in and we have these adjoining rooms, and the door is open between rooms. I’m talking to her and he sticks his head out of the door and goes,“Well, goodnight, Kobe!”
BLVR: Aaaaaand scene!
MVP: Yeah, yeah! It’s like, “Ooooooookay gotta go! Seeeeeya! I’m leaving now, here I go!” So we always clown each other. We’re very rich as a father and son, and as a family, but that’s not monetary.
BLVR: Was it difficult casting your grandfather?
MVP: Ozzie Davis came so close to granddad. He really caught his energy. Granddad was a very gentle guy, but a very tough guy, too. It was always interesting because my black grandfather taught himself to read, and my white grandfather taught at Harvard and Yale. [Throws hands up.] My mother’s mother, my white grandmother, was the woman that helped start the League of Women Voters, and worked for the NAACP and sued the school system in Virginia to integrate it, saying that her white kids were not being allowed to go to school with Jewish kids, Hispanic kids, and black kids and thus denying them a full social education. And they won! The KKK burned a cross on my grandmother’s lawn and said,“We hope your daughters marry niggers!” And she said [channels a sweet little old lady],“Thank you, so do we.”
BLVR: Standing up and shaking things around a bit seems to be a family trademark. Was social consciousness a concept you were raised to be comfortable with?
MVP: I had two hip parents, who were nonmaterialistic. They didn’t say, “Mario, be a lawyer or be a doctor.” They said,“Mario, find your dharma. Find what makes you happy. What do you want on your tombstone? What do you want it to say?” Do I want it to say, “I bought a lot of shit”?
BLVR: When you went to Columbia and studied economics, were you thinking of heading in a different direction, or did you get your degree to enhance your filmmaking career?
MVP: I knew I wanted to make films. I had to understand my game and their game. If society is not engineered with you in mind, you sort of have this immediate bicultural understanding of things. I majored in economics but I never forgot who I was and what my goals were. In a capitalist system, they evaluate success in a very young-soul way.The young-soul way of evaluating success is he who dies with the most toys wins. They ask you,“How’d your movie do?” But what they mean is, how much money did it make? It’s life’s little report card. When you no longer think that way, they freak out! If you make a movie like New Jack City, which makes a pile of money, the next thing is “Oh, make New Jack City… TWO! What are you, an idiot? That’s the thing to do! You want to make more money, don’t you?” Once you no longer think like that, it’s hard for them to get you.
III. “YOU END UP WITH KIDS WHO INHERIT THE BRAVADO OF THE PANTHERS, BUT WITHOUT THE POLITICAL IDEOLOGY.”
BLVR: What goes through your mind when you see escapist cinema? It’s a good mindless laugh, but on some level, is it doing more harm than good? Take something like Soul Plane. While funny, isn’t it only pounding the wrong ideas into our heads?
MVP: Well, being a niggerologist, or a humanologist, it’s a tricky place for me to put myself in. I’m a filmmaker and it’d be like me gassing up my own films or saying that they’re intelligent. I’ve made stupid movies, I’ve acted in some dumb movies, and I like escapist cinema, too. Part of it is education. I don’t think there’s anything wrong, per se, with us being in comedy. If you can make the dominant culture laugh, you can say a lot of things without getting heavy. Comedy is real; the problem is a lack of respect. Soul Plane was made for sixteen million dollars by a big studio that says that the idea of people of color running an airplane is a joke. It’s not that we have a Soul Plane so much as we don’t have a Beautiful Mind. We don’t have a Good Will Hunting. The majority of what you get is this silly crap. It’s a problem.
BLVR: So you think there’s a certain amount of social responsibility that should be taken by the studios and production companies?
MVP: The studios are just making ninety-minute commercials. Not all of them, but a lot of the stuff you see is this “Charlie’s Angels Makes Money” and “Van Helsing Makes Money” stuff. [To imitate a studio executive, he begins screeching in an almost barn-owl decibel.] “Because money plus money makes more money! And if it’s dumber, then even the stupid people can go and understand it! If I go higher, I may narrow my audience, because they’re really dumb.” The thinking person doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than independent films and documentaries.
BLVR: It’s been said that art, comedy in particular, has had some of its finest hours during Republican administrations, mainly as a retaliatory response. But some would argue that far better things came during Democratic administrations. Where do you sit with that?
MVP: I think things will continue to get dumber because they don’t want you thinking. In a totalitarian society, the first thing they do is silence the artists. Hitler gathered up all the artwork and said, “You will now only do certain kinds of art. ”There are just some things that you won’t get out.
BLVR: Do you foresee another period of radical change on the horizon, or a slow and sleepy move into becoming a slightly more empowered country?
MVP: Look at what happened in the seventies, when you had all of these kids getting together and starting to be empowered. They started to have a thought about whether we should be in the Vietnam War. And it was reflected in the art. Bob Marley was telling us to get up and stand up. Marvin Gaye was saying, “What’s happening, brother?” Even the Temptations were stirring up all the confusion with “War, what is it good for?” I mean, those were songs that I thought were sort of lightweight back then, but now that’s some heavy shit.
BLVR: How do you think that compares with mainstream music right now?
MVP: Now we’re sort of dancing to “I got more gold than you” and this ghetto capitalism on crack. Once the system can make money from it, they deliberately pull out the nutritional value. It’s the same thing with films. You end up with kids who have inherited the bravado of the Panthers, but without the political ideology. You got the stance and the thumping heart, but it’s over a rap album.
BLVR: A lot of people don’t question anything enough to even get that far. It’s probably no accident that we’ve reached this point, since we’re one of the few educated countries that doesn’t teach media literacy to its youth.
MVP: I think it’s harder to energize folks because they don’t often see the effects on their personal lives. The Panthers had this breakfast program in schools, and that was one of their biggest achievements. They said, “We thought if we gave people food, they might want clothing. If we give people clothing, they might want housing. And if we gave people housing, we thought they might someday want something called freedom.” A nebulous concept like freedom can only be focused on when you’ve gotten beyond the hand-to-mouth existence. That’s part of the problem with folks who are disenfranchised in America now. It’s hard for them to conceptualize freedom on the bigger level. And I’m not talking about Black America, White America. I’m talking about all of America. A democracy is not just there like the statue of Lincoln is there at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s more like a car. When you take your foot off the gas, that sucker slows down. Well, we’re taking our foot off the gas. I bet you if they did a study on what films people watch, they could tell which way they vote.
BLVR: How can you keep applying pressure to the gas pedal of our proverbial car?
MVP: They did this show on CNN a while back about a high school—
BLVR: Shaker Heights High School?
MVP: You saw that? It wasn’t just that the black kids were from one-parent homes or had less money or were talking Ebonics at home. They were watching imagery on television that perpetuates a culture of anti-intellectualism. It’s like, “In order to be a real black person, I have to be ignorant, and to be educated means I’m trying to be white.” So at the end, the kids got together and put pressure on every class.
BLVR: They had that great personal-accountability pledge.
MVP: If the kids from within say, “I’m going to make being an intellectual hip. I’m going to make being a revolutionary hip. I’m going to make being politically empowered hip,” that’s all they’ve got to do! So, yeah, to back up a bit, we’re listening to dumb shit. We’re listening to dumb music, we’re listening to dumb news, and you have to make an effort to go outside of that.