At the age of fourteen, Mario Van Peebles, the son of renowned filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, made his debut in his dad’s 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
In the movie, Mario had to portray Sweetback during some important moments of his childhood, including the loss of his virginity.
This was a daunting task for a young boy, especially since the cast and crew of the film included his own father. In order to stay within the budget, Melvin asked Mario to cut his afro.
However, the afro ended up being retained and a wig was bought instead.
As time went by, Mario started to understand the lessons his father was teaching him.
Mario furthered his education at Columbia University, gaining business acumen while working for the New York City mayoral office during Ed Koch’s time in office.
He went on to make a name for himself in the film industry with movies such as New Jack City, Panther, and Posse.
Knowing that his father’s memory should be known, he took part in the production of Baadasssss, a movie that was based on the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and depicted a father and son’s complicated relationship.
At a North Hollywood diner, I had the pleasure of breaking bread with Mario Van Peebles.
His politeness and energy were remarkable, and his fragrance was rather remarkable too. It’s not very professional of me to say, but it’s true.
Although he is well-read and passionate about some topics, one can’t help but feel relaxed in his presence due to his scent, which is a combination of bergamot and Ivory soap.
According to Amy Guth,
From the start, was there any hesitation on your part to portray your own dad in Baadasssss, or did you immediately know that that was something you wanted to do?
Mario Van Peebles remarked that the only way to make the film without it becoming stale was to do it himself. He stated that, out of anyone, he had the most experience with the project.
He added that he knew of one actor who would always be on time, know their lines, not be under the influence, and not cause any issues: himself.
Furthermore, he joked that after years of sleeping with the director, it was finally paying off in some way. [Laughs]
BLVR: What was the source of your inspiration for incorporating footage from Sweet Sweetback ‘s Baadasssss Song, as well as television and film images from the time period, in order to make it sometimes hard to differentiate between you and your father?
MVP: My goal in crafting the film Baadasssss was to create a cinematic climate that was reflective of the social, political, and thematic context of the late sixties.
Many movies from that era depicted people of color as trying to be “colored” instead of “black,” seeking to be accepted by the dominant culture and to be viewed as a minority.
This portrayal of marginalized individuals was being presented in film to not only the black populace, but to the entire world.
My intention was to utilize the medium of cinema to communicate this marginalization, and to show the imagery being fed to people of color at the time.
BLVR: This point is often disregarded and it conveys the significance of your dad’s work.
MVP: My father had a revolutionary mindset; he believed that instead of merely hoping for a better future, he and his crew could make it happen immediately.
Malcolm X’s idea of creating one’s own business to avoid discrimination was echoed by my dad who suggested making one’s own movies if they cannot be a part of the existing ones.
He was not just someone who talked about it, he took action.
When Sweet-back came out, the critics were not pleased with the unusual colors and garbled sound but what they didn’t understand was the new language, Ebonics.
It was like a rebellion against the feudal system. I may not always be in agreement with what my dad represented but I definitely respect it.
BLVR: In regards to the other parts of the entertainment industry, do you find that your father’s accomplishments have created an easier road for you?
MVP: Yes, I was able to assemble a unionized and diverse crew.
My director of photography was a sixty-three-year-old Jewish individual, the wardrobe girl had a huge afro, and the set decorator was a Japanese guy. It was amazing that we were able to put together such a team, and it was thrilling.
However, when I sent out the script, I was still required to deliver it to a certain group of old men. They replied asking if I could turn it into a hip-hop comedy and make it “festival friendly,” whatever that term meant.
BLVR asked if the person had used the term “festival friendly” in their statement.
MVP: So in other words, if you’re not aiming for a hip-hop, ghetto comedy vibe, can you target more of the Lost in Translation audience?
You understand the difficulty there? Black cinema usually doesn’t have the same kind of complicated mother-daughter or father-son stories. We don’t often see complex, flawed characters.
They kept saying, “You got to make Melvin more likable,” and my dad always said, “I know I wasn’t… um…”
BLVR reported that he had stated, “Do not present me in an overly positive light.”
MVP: Yeah, he wasn’t a pleasant person; he was pretty much like The Great Santini. [Laughs]
One thing he did was involve us in the war without explaining the battle, and how much of it could a kid really understand?
I remember once his agent took me to buy a bike, and when I had to give it back on Melvin’s orders, the agent said, “Well, that’s too bad, you might not get another one.
Your dad will lose all of his money and your college fund if he doesn’t do some comedy.”
But my dad refused, and that’s when I could have seen him in Jet magazine with some jewelry, a nice big house and a couple of dogs, saying, “Look, a black person can do it too. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
But he didn’t do it…[Mario is grinning from ear to ear and bouncing in his seat, with his fists in the air] Oh yeah, I have to tell you this.
So I was passing by a store near my editor’s house while I was working on a First Amendment piece, and I heard a voice say, “Mario! Mario, look at me! Buy me! Buy me!”
I looked up and there in the window was the exact remake of the Schwinn bike that I…
BLVR and MVP, singing in harmony, exclaimed that they had to return something.
MVP: It was an exact replica of the bike! They had a limited-edition version, and it was the only one around.
Therefore, I had to get it, and my son Mandela said to me, “Granddad should be responsible for that purchase.” And he did. My dad handed me the money and said, “I would like to take care of that bike for you.”
BLVR: Watching Baadasssss, I was especially taken aback by the moment when the crowd arrived for the exhibition of Sweet Sweetback ‘s Badass Song and little Mario–Khleo Thomas–was in the middle of it all.
Can you recall the sensations, vibes, might, etc. that were in the theater that evening?
MVP: It was incredible. My father recounted a story about an elderly woman in the cinema who exclaimed “Let him die!” This was due to her disbelief that a black man could evade the police as it seemed impossible.
BLVR: I was particularly impressed by the way you showed Melvin’s creative process. He separated himself from his surroundings and became oblivious to the mess.
You presented this so honestly and I’m sure many people will be able to relate to it.
MVP: To illustrate the writing process, I thought I’d introduce the voices of self-doubt.
This was the most difficult part to convey, but then I figured I could show my dad asserting himself, saying “Fuck you! I’m going to do it! Are you in or are you out?” to demonstrate overcoming those doubts.
He raises his hand for a high-five and I clumsily return it, and I’m glad he got it. I realised that with a dance movie, you can show the evolution of the steps, and with a music film, you can show the beginnings of the music being put together, but with writing, it’s like watching paint dry.
So I wanted to take the audience inside the creator’s head and illustrate the journey.
BLVR: During Baadasssss, there were a couple of lines that stood out to me. In the beginning, when Melvin was outlining his movie and listing what needed to be included, he declared that he would make a movie for “those that Norman Rockwell never immortalized.”
MVP: The protagonist of the film is initially a flawed street hustler who has a selfish attitude. However, through the course of the movie, his outlook changes to one of standing up for others and striving for collective success.
This transformation is aided by Mexican Americans, the workers, and a white cracker guy who switches clothes with him. Sweetback has to learn to survive from all the disenfranchised.
When people watch Baadasssss , they understand that the protagonist is still “Head Nigga In Charge” and that the movie doesn’t come at the exclusion of any group. It is a unified movement.
What impact did Sweetback have on the young revolutionaries of its era?
MVP: It was a revelation for them about the movie-making process. People were surprised that they could do it this way, while Hollywood was against it and had numerous requirements.
The dominant culture had many advantages but one of the drawbacks was that they couldn’t comprehend anything that wasn’t part of their traditional way of life.
This made it possible for Sweetback to take them by surprise.
This is why the studios immediately reacted and tried to prevent Melvin from doing anything similar again, out of fear that he could say something.
BLVR: The timing of the movie’s release was a bit uncertain, yet it ended up being successful. It appeared as though it came out right when people needed it the most.
MVP: It was a perilous moment to be filming a movie. The events occurring around them were authentic; children were being killed, Martin Luther King JrJFK and RFK were all assassinated.
People were being shot at Panther Headquarters. It was a genuine peril. It was not like, “Oh, I’m not wearing a turban, so nobody is paying attention to me.”
At that time, everyone was being watched.
BLVR: Did Melvin’s lack of success in Hollywood after Sweetback have something to do with it?
My father often uses the analogy of a billiards room to illustrate his experience in the movie business. He would enter the hall, uncertain and a bit unsteady, and find himself in a high-stakes situation.
When he was successful and won the round, he would walk away with the winnings but not receive an invitation to return. Hollywood was much like that pool hall—after Sweetback made a lot of money, instead of bringing him back, they simply copied the winning formula.
BLVR: Is there a good equilibrium between your business and family ties with Melvin?
MVP: We have a few different relationships between us; we are filmmakers, father and son, and also friends who joke around a lot.
On one occasion, we were staying in a hotel and the woman at the desk was rather attractive. She said, “Oh, Mr. Van Peebles, I love your work!” It just so happened she was referring to me.
As she was helping us around and giving us some extra services, my dad seemed to be a bit put off. We had adjoining rooms and the door was left open.
As I was chatting with her, my dad poked his head out of the room and said, “Well, goodnight, Kobe!”
BLVR: That’s a wrap!
MVP: We always have a good time making fun of each other. Though our family is wealthy, it’s not just in a financial sense.
We have a wealth of love and understanding between us. “Ooooooookay gotta go! Seeeeeya! I’m leaving now, here I go!”
Did you find it hard to cast your grandfather in a role?
MVP: Ozzie Davis was very similar to my granddad. He had the same spirit. Granddad was tender-hearted, yet strong.
It was fascinating because my African-American grandpa taught himself to read, while my Caucasian grandpa taught at Harvard and Yale.
[Throws hands up.] On my mom’s side, my white grandmother was a pioneer for the League of Women Voters, worked for the NAACP and took on the Virginia school system in court.
She argued that her white children were not allowed to go to school with Jewish, Hispanic and black children, thus preventing them from gaining a complete social education.
Miraculously, they won the case! The KKK burned a cross on my grandmother’s property and said, “We hope your daughters marry niggers!” To which she replied [mimics a sweet little old lady], “Thank you, so do we.”
BLVR: Has challenging the status quo always been a trait which is passed down in your family? Were you brought up with the idea of being conscious of social issues?
MVP: My folks were very open-minded and not focused on material items. Instead of pushing me to pursue a certain profession, they asked me to find my own path – to choose what would bring me joy.
They wanted to know how I wanted to be remembered – would I rather my tombstone say I had lots of stuff or that I followed my heart?
BLVR: What was the impetus behind your pursuit of an economics degree at Columbia – did you envision a career change or was it intended to bolster your filmmaking aspirations?
MVP: I always wanted to create films, and I had to understand both my perspective and that of the wider world.
Even though I majored in Economics, I never forgot who I was or what my ambitions were. In a capitalist system, success is typically measured in a very simplistic way–whoever has the most material possessions wins.
People will often ask “How did your movie do?” but what they really mean is, “How much money did it make?” It’s like a report card.
But when you stop thinking in such a shallow manner, it can be difficult for some to comprehend.
For example, if you make a movie like New Jack City that makes a good amount of money, they will want you to make a sequel.
They will think, “Don’t you want to make more money?” Once you stop thinking that way, it can be hard for them to understand.
III. THE OFFSPRING OF THE PANTHERS CAN BE OBSERVED TO BEHAVE WITH THE CONFIDENCE OF THEIR PARENTS, BUT WITHOUT THE POLITICAL BELIEFS.
When confronted with escapist cinema, what is the reaction? Can it provide a pleasant distraction, but perhaps in doing so, is it potentially doing a disservice? One example of this is Soul Plane.
While it may induce some laughter, wouldn’t it be sending an inappropriate message?
As a filmmaker and a niggerologist, or humanologist, it’s a difficult position to be in. I’ve made some silly movies and acted in some dumb ones too – I’m not opposed to escapist cinema.
I think part of the issue is education, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us being in comedy. By making the dominant culture laugh, a lot can be said without going too deep.
The problem is a lack of respect. Soul Plane was made on a budget of sixteen million dollars, implying that the concept of people of color running an airplane is humorous.
The truth is, we don’t have the same opportunities to see Beautiful Mind or Good Will Hunting, and instead we’re presented with this frivolous stuff. It’s a problem.
BLVR asked whether, in their opinion, production companies and studios had a certain duty of social accountability to uphold.
MVP: A great deal of what comes out of the studios can be compared to ninety-minute commercials. [ An imitation of a studio executive follows, screeching in an almost barn-owl decibel. ]
The idea is that “if it’s dumber, then even the stupid people can go and understand it!” Thus, the majority of big-budget films are aimed towards a less sophisticated audience.
Consequently, those seeking more thought-provoking entertainment must look towards independent films and documentaries.
It has been suggested that art, specifically comedy, has flourished the most during Republican administrations, supposedly as a form of retaliation.
However, some contend that the best art has been produced during Democratic administrations. What are your thoughts on this?
MVP: I believe that the world will only become more and more ignorant due to the fact that they don’t wish for people to think.
Under a totalitarian system, the primary strategy is to quash the voices of the creatives. Hitler had all of the artwork collected and declared: “You will only create certain types of art.
There will be certain matters that you won’t be able to comprehend.”
BLVR: Are we likely to experience a dramatic shift in the near future, or will the process of becoming more empowered take place gradually?
In the 70s, a wave of young people became empowered and began to question the Vietnam War. This was reflected in the music of the time, such as Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening, Brother?”
Even the Temptations addressed the issue with “War, What is it Good For?” At the time, I thought these songs were not significant, but now I realize that they were quite powerful.
What are your thoughts on the contrast between your music and what is currently popular in the mainstream?
MVP: We’re currently grooving to “I got more gold than you” and what could be called capitalism on steroids.
When a system can make a profit from something, they purposely reduce its nutritive worth. This is the same situation with movies.
We have children who have acquired the courage of the Panthers, yet without the political beliefs. They have the attitude and a beating heart, however it is for a hip-hop collection.
It’s likely no coincidence that we are in the present state, since our nation is one of the few with educated citizens that don’t educate its young on media literacy.
Many people don’t even take the effort to question anything.
In order to motivate people, it can be difficult to make them understand how it will affect their lives. The Panthers implemented a breakfast program in schools which they considered to be their most successful achievement.
They reasoned that if they provided people with the basics like food, clothes, and housing, they might one day be able to comprehend the abstract notion of freedom.
This is a challenge that is faced by those who are excluded in the US, not just African American or Caucasian citizens, but all citizens.
A democracy is not like a statue; it needs to be kept running with effort. Studies have shown that people’s film choices can indicate their political leanings.
BLVR: What ways can you continue to push the limits of our figurative vehicle?
CNN recently put out a program about a high school that had an MVP.
Question posed to BLVR: Could you tell me about Shaker Heights High School?
MVP: That is what they observed; it wasn’t just because the black kids were from single-parent households or had a smaller budget or spoke Ebonics in the home.
They were viewing stereotypes on the television that promotes a culture of opposing intellectualism. It’s as if “In order to be a true black person, I have to be uneducated, and to be knowledgeable means I’m attempting to be white.”
As a result, the kids collaborated and applied pressure on all their classes.
BLVR had a pledge that emphasized personal responsibility.
MVP: The children need to make being smart, being a revolutionary, and being politically active cool again.
To accomplish this, they must distance themselves from the mundane; music, news, and other sources that may be deemed “dumb”.
To make a difference, they must make an effort to explore the world outside of this bubble.
The increasing development of technology has led to a new world of opportunities available to people.
People are able to access these opportunities through a variety of means, such as the internet, which has opened up a range of possibilities.
Technological progress has allowed individuals to access information, connect with others, purchase goods and services, and much more.
As a result, the world is becoming more connected and creating new pathways for people to explore.
Adam Drucker, better known by the alias Doseone, has said his initial attraction to rap was as much about the……