Mario Van Peebles (right), with his dad Melvin Van Peebles
Mario Van Peebles is the son of Melvin Van Peebles, the legendary filmmaker who created the cinema classic 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' (1971). After his father's film inspired the entire group of movies from the blaxploitation era, Mario (who appeared in 'Sweetback' as a boy) went on to contribute to film history himself by crafting well-loved films like 'New Jack City' (1991),'Panther' (1995) and 'Baadasssss' (2003), among many other directing and acting credits. After hosting TV One's black history month special this year, 'Way Black When,' focusing on empowerment through black film, Mario had even more inspiring ideas to share with us about black film history. Mr. Van Peebles took some time out to talk with Black Voices about the revolutionary impact that his father's magnum opus had not only on black film, but also on how people came to view the black community. Read on to learn more about the importance of creating powerful black images to enlarge our scope of the future.
Your father Melvin Van Peebles created one of the most important films in history, 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.' It encapsulated the rage and power of the black community at the time, and inspired people to notice our righteous anger. Can you talk about the influence of his film and how films empower the black community?
On many levels 'Sweetback' is empowering. It's interesting in that not only is it empowering in its history, but there is a huge generational divide that it crosses. The kids who watched the film 20 years later – like John Singleton, like Spike Lee, like Mario Van Peebles, like the Hudlin Brothers – could look at it and say "hey man. That's what I want to do. I want to make movies like that."
My dad did 'Sweetback.' Then they turned 'Shaft' from a white movie into a black movie. It had been a script written about a white detective. When they did that, we went from being what I call the 'Moteasa' tribe – as in the servant class: "You want some more tea, suh? You want some more coffee, suh?" – from the servant 'Moteasa' tribe to suddenly... Black was not only beautiful. Black was classy, ass-kicking and name-taking, too. What my father did with 'Sweetback' was take what was already on the street and put it on the screen. In the streets you had the Panthers, you had Huey, you had Bobby, you had Eldridge, you had the sisters – Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown. And so suddenly, Melvin Van Peebles brought black power to the screen. And the Panthers embraced it and made it a hit.
It's interesting that the generation that made 'Cosby' the number one show -- that generation that grew up watching the Huxtables on TV and accepted their existence -- is the same generation that voted Obama into the White House.
Before apartheid fell, their two favorite shows in South Africa were 'Miami Vice' with a white leading man and a black leading man, and 'The Cosby Show.' There is a connection between what we watch and take in – especially as children – and what we understand as a possibility as adults. That's a big connection.
Now even later, we have kids looking at Barack in the White House, and they are going to say "yeah! That's what I want to do!" So it is very, very important, especially as I say for children, who take it to heart in a different way. It has a different resonance. So I think the notion of us seeing something as possible, even cinematically or on T.V., will affect our choices later.
Talk more about what made 'Sweetback' so empowering. Are films as empowering today?
'Sweetback' is about a brother who goes from a "me" mentality to a "we" mentality. It's about a street brother who becomes a revolutionary. He goes up against the system. Now 'Shaft' (1971) is about a brother who works in conjunction with the system. He's a private detective working with the system. Then'Superfly' (1972) is about a brother who deals drugs against his own people for the system.
So what happens is, that as the corporations get involved – 'Sweetback' was made independently of big money, the other two films were made with big money – when big money gets involved, they may keep the same empowered black lead, BUT the revolutionary message of going up against the system gets drained out. So what happens is you keep the same brother with the mustache and the afro, and the same theme music, but we drain out the revolutionary core of that message, bit by bit.
The same thing happened with rap music. Gil Scott-Heron started out talking about how the revolution will not be televised. And then you take that up to Public Enemy talking about how we need to fight the power. But when big money got involved, the rap they started to fund was more about "I got money and b*&^%#$ and hoes." Not rap that's telling you to get up and stand up, or fight the power. So the rap that gets funded will have that same good groove, and great beat, but what you will be dancing to will be something that in fact is counter-revolutionary and designed to keep you down.
Because people start to confuse freedom with money. Getting paid by any means necessary starts to replace freedom by any means necessary.
And the shell game that Hollywood plays is that if you make a movie like 'Jaws' where a shark eats people and it makes money – Hollywood's not black or white, it's green – they're going to make more movies about fish (or squid or whatever) eating people until that type of movie stops making money. Then they'll say "that type of movie's not making money anymore." They won't say it's the race of the people in the movie. Whereas with the black movies, when the movies of the '70s began to run out of steam, they didn't say "it's the genre." They thought it was the fact that the movies had black actors in them, and they shut the door on those black actors.
Then in the '90s, when I did 'New Jack City' and Spike did his movies, we were in the system as film directors and writers. Things changed. But there is still no head of studio that is African American. The golden rule is, he with the gold makes the rules. So we still don't have true access to that.
What is the state of black filmmaking today? What kind of special challenges do black filmmakers face when trying to get our stories onto the screen?
I don't want to be put in a position where I look like I am a film critic. However, my film 'Baadasssss' in which I play my dad – we were nominated for best screenplay, best film, and best director, and we were in the best ten films of the year from Ebert and Roeper – is about my dad directing 'Sweetback' with a multi-cultural crew. [At around the same time ] that 'Baadasssss' came out a film called 'Soul Plane' came out. It takes the premise that African Americans running an airline is a joke. That we couldn't run an airline. That the plane would be purple, and have spinners and be going up and down. The pilots would be blowing refer in the cockpit. It was funny stuff. That they would be giving out fried chicken in first class. It was a laugh.
But the essential message under it was one of disempowerment. That black people can't even run a d#$% airline. The same [time] you have my film coming out, and my film is saying people of all colors can come together under an African American film director and make a hit film. The movie I made had to be made independently for a million dollars. 'Soul Plane' could be made by a big studio for $16 million dollars.
What I'm saying is that a message of disempowerment with some humor over it can get funded for $16 million by a big studio, but that message of empowerment across racial lines didn't. So even in this day and age, sometimes it's easier to put out something that is not as positive. I'm not upset about having our 'Soul Planes,' just like they have their 'Dumb and Dumbers.' But the problem is that we don't have enough [films like] 'A Beautiful Mind,' 'Or Good Will Hunting' or 'Sleepless in Seattle,' with people of color. And I'm not just talking about black folks. Native Americans, Indians, all of us.
Look at this – we are 33% of the film going population, and 2% of the filmmaking population. We are only 12% of the entire population. That's deep. We are disproportionately under-represented. We are watchers. We've got to be doers. We play ball. We've got to own the team.
But things are changing. A couple of years ago, Chris Rock could make a film about a black president that was a joke, and now we've got one! America is a funny place. It's a beautiful place, too. I mean, where else would my family have the chance to do what we do. For us to have a bloodless revolution like we just had. So we have a lot of issues here, but I've got to tell you, man I've been all around the world, and there's no place like home. I hate to sound like Dorothy, but I mean it!
There seems to be an effort to make more stories about black women that are empowering. What are your thoughts on the movie "Precious"? How do you feel about "The Princess and the Frog"?
That's a good question, because I was driving down Sunset Boulevard with my daughter a while back. We were talking about women in film. And we were talking about weight. And it's interesting because they did research that shows that the heavy-set, sassy black woman serving up attitude is something that America still seems to be very comfortable with. It's like Aunt Jemima with attitude.
So we're driving down the street, and I say "look here!" We looked up and we saw a billboard with Martin Lawrence playing a heavy-set, sassy black woman in 'Big Momma's House.' And then we drive a little further, and then we saw Tyler Perry playing a big sassy woman (laughs) in 'Madea's House.' And we drive a little further, and we saw Eddie Murphy playing in 'Norbit' as a sassy black woman. I was like, "wow, that's deep!" And then we drove a little further, and we saw a billboard with sister Queen Latifah. (Laughs) And there are studies that show that Oprah does better when she's got too much weight and is trying to lose it.
When she has lost weight and is looking great, then she is getting the hater energy. So it's interesting. That's deep that we are still more comfortable with that.
And we were talking about what she would face, because my daughter is fine, and she stands up straight, and she's an articulate sister. She's bilingual, she speaks French. And we were just talking about the kind of things she'll face not only from the world at large, but even from other sisters saying "well if you talk like this, or are doing this, are you trying to be white?"
I hope that not only will we see the President bring change, but that we'll also see some change from Michelle. A bright, tall, fine, eloquent, accomplished sister. Seeing that kind of image. And not the angry black woman. Not serving up all the attitude. I think it's a fight.
And it's funny that you mention it. I am just now thinking about trying to do a story about the rise of a very powerful black woman. I won't tell you the name or I'd have to kill you. But I think we need more stories like that. And I think we need more sisters directing and producing, writing, etc. You know, the struggle continues. It's very important to see us branch out.
That doesn't mean that we don't have the new n!#$@#$ of cinema. The new n!#$@#$ of cinema are the Arabs. They are doing to them what they used to do to us. As long as we sit by and tolerate them doing that to them, the sand brothers and sisters as they call them -- you have to remember "what you do to the least of these, you do to me." It doesn't mean that because things have gotten better for us that they can't shift it back. It's like I said in a talk last night. Democracy, even cinematic democracy, is like the gas on a car. If you take your foot off it, it'll slow down.
What are you thoughts on Black History Month? Do you think that it is still relevant in the age of Obama?
I think it's super-relevant. I just showed a new documentary I have called 'Fair Game.' It's on TV One. Man does it answer that question. And it asks the question: Now that we have a president in the White House who reflects us in many ways, is it a "fair game"? Is it a level playing field? Watch that movie, and [you will have my answer.]