Celebrity Interviews: Mario Van Peebles Pays Cinematic Homage To His Dad




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Laurence Washington

Mario Van Peebles

Historically, blacks in the cinema were portrayed as buffoons, train porters and shoeshine boys, but all that changed during the summer of 1971.

Enter Melvin Van Peebles, a revolutionary indie filmmaker who forever altered every moviegoer’s perception of the black experience in film.

Van Peebles’ sweeping Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the first "commercially" successful black-theme film that showed a black man getting over on the white establishment, wasn’t groundbreaking — it was Earth shaking.

To underline the fact, Van Peebles, 71, ended his film with his hero character Sweetback escaping from the clutches of "the man" (the all-purpose villain) as the words, "A bad ass nigger is coming back to collect some dues," is superimposed across the screen.

Black audiences cheered. It was a triumph in black cinema, which up until that point portrayed blacks as subservient lackeys in white Hollywood.

Thirty-three years later, just in time for Father’s Day, Van Peebles’ son, writer/director Mario, 47, portrays his father in the upcoming film Baadasssss — a behind-the-scenes bio-pic of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

The Van Peebles

"I started thinking of making a picture that is a great story about a brother who is not an athlete, not a rapper, who's never been in jail and never been near a jail," Mario says. "A brother who is the HNIC (Head Nigger In Charge), and who directs a movie and who can work with people of all colors and get it done."

Baadasssss is based partly on Melvin Van Peebles’ book, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Voices of Conscience. Giving Mario carte blanche retelling his life’s story, Van Peebles never stepped foot on the Baadasssss set while the film was in production. The only hitch: He gave Mario specific instructions not to portray him as being too nice.

The senior Van Peebles saw the finished product at the Toronto Film Festival along with 600 other people.

"When I saw it, I was stunned with how accurate it was," Van Peebles says. "I thought that it portrayed the whole situation. I was amazed at how good a job he had done with the cinematic transition from page to cinema. He captured the whole thing. It was like reliving it condensed into 108 minutes."

Mario says, "I was sitting beside my dad watching him, watching me. I said, ‘Ah this is a trip!’ I could barely eat my popcorn."

Mario says he believes black movies can have characters that are complex and three-dimensional. But the studio kept telling him to make the film more for white or black audiences, and to make his father less political and sexy — make him nicer.

"I said, ‘This is my dad. He’s a tough brother. He got it done when it was hard to get it done,’" Mario says. "I thought that’s a good story. It’s a real story about a complex relationship between father and son."

Part of Mario’s inspiration came from wanting to show blacks how to get into the position of not just asking for a job. Not just eating fish, but knowing how to fish.

"The other part was while on the set of Ali," Mario says, "Ali kept asking me about my dad. And I kept thinking Ali was the first black power athlete to stand for something. And that Melvin Van Peebles used the silver screen not just to entertain, but to stand for something too."

After completing the comedy farce Watermelon Man (‘70), Mario says his father wanted to make black movies that said something. The rub was that the all-white unionized film crews at the time wouldn’t support such a venture. So Van Peebles hired a multi-ethnic, non-union film crew that mirrored the American movie going public.

"A lot of our heroes were shot down, ended up poor, broke or on drugs," Mario says. "Melvin Van Peebles saved the day. There was a war going on. And he made a movie about how it was, and how he wanted it to be. And I wanted to make a movie about how it was. And I kept it real."

Baadasssss’ production experienced the trials and tribulations very similar to those that plagued Sweetback: little financing, no studio backing and a lot of help from close friends.

"The studios wouldn’t finance it unless I soften Melvin’s character," Mario says. "Or if I made it more of a hip-hop, Barbershop kind of flick.

"I said, ‘OK, I’ll make it in 18 days. And I’ll make it with my own little MVP films.’"

That’s when Ossie Davis called Mario and said, "I’ll be in the film." Mario confessed to the legendary actor that he didn’t have the budget to place him in a hotel.

"He said, ‘Well clean up your house boy. I’m staying with you,’" Mario says. "Then Nia Long and Joy Bryant and all those folks came out for the project. They didn’t know Sweetback, but they knew what I was doing. They knew my reputation. It was two generations of goodwill out in the community. And they say that we don’t network enough.

Joy Bryant

"And then John Singleton calls up and says, ‘I’m down.’ David Alan Grier says, ‘I’m down.’ Then Bill Cosby says as long as you’re not calling me for a loan as your dad did, ‘I’m down.’ So it was beautiful to see all those people coming forth in the spirit of having this project for its nutritional value. That says something.

"We’re taught how to play ball," Mario says. But we’re not taught how to own the team. And the same goes for cinema. We’re taught that everyone wants to be in the movie, and to be glamorous. But we’re not often taught how to make a business out of it.

"The advantage I had growing up was [my dad] taught me how to make a business out of it," he says. "Sweetback was a threat to the status quo. Sony classic is putting out Baadasssss. But you’re not going to see a big huge billboard, because I didn’t go for the comfortable studio way. There is no head of any studio, who is African-American, Asian, or native-American or even a woman. So you have to go through a bunch of old white guys and let them decide if your movie is OK. They’ll tell what your people want to see. And if you don't like it, then that's too bad. So that’s why I made it independently."

Mario says Baadasssss isn’t going to open in many theaters and it doesn’t have a big advertising budget.

"We have to get out there the first weekend and see it," he says. "Otherwise you’re going to be seeing Barbershop 7. And there’s a place for that too. But it's just where is our Lost In Translation? Our Life Is Beautiful?"

Audiences seem ready to support Baadasssss. Mario recalls filming in the same L.A. neighborhood his father did 33 years ago.

"I was running through the hood," Mario says, "and this older brother with a bottle of wine or something in his hand looked up and said, "What! Sweetback is back! Just like he said, after 30 years! That nigger has come back to collect some dues!’"


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