Mario Van Peebles: Superfly

Chris Sullivan meets the director Mario Van Peebles, as he picks up where his father left off
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Hey brother, what's happening?" asks the ridiculously youthful 48-year-old Mario Van Peebles as we meet in the library of a fashionable London hotel. Here to promote Baadasssss, the loquacious actor/director is on fine form, totally undaunted by what some might call a gruelling press schedule. "I'm just so glad to be here," he adds. "Talking to cats who are interested in what I do."

And I am very interested; Peebles has acted in some 59 films and directed, among others, New Jack City - a stirring anti-drugs polemic starring Wesley Snipes - and Panther, the story of the revolutionary Black Panther Movement that, based on the book by his father, Melvin Van Peebles, maintains that the FBI deliberately pumped cheap heroin into the ghetto in order to undermine the politically militant. Van Peebles is an interesting guy.

His latest offering, Baadasssss, tells the story of the making of his father's equally volatile 1971 picture Sweet Sweetback's Baad Assss Song that, exonerated by said Black Panthers, sparked not only the whole blaxploitation genre but also redefined the Afro-American on screen."Before my father did Sweetback the conditions for black film-makers and actors were dire," says Peebles.

"Even after Dr King and Malcolm X were killed and the black folks quit singing 'We Shall Overcome' and started singing 'Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud', Hollywood still portrayed black folks as what I call the Moteasa Tribe - 'mo' tea sir, mo' coffee, mo' something else sir' - or else they were the über-negro as portrayed by actors such as Sidney Poitier with the suit and the tie. And then along comes Melvin and he makes the first ass-kicking, outrageous, black power film and all those folk with the afros, the Black Panthers and the Angela Davises went: 'Yes! Finally a movie that we can relate to.'"

An unforeseen entity of alien countenance, Sweetback caught the studios napping and threw the powers that be into fits of confusion, becoming the biggest independent movie to date. "When something makes $15m box office at a dollar a ticket and you are a studio exec and you cannot understand it at all, you panic," laughs Van Peebles, almost falling off his chair. "So you got to go out and hire the first guy with an afro and say, 'Help! Give us some flavour.'

"But, you see, they had no other choice. After Malcolm and Martin and the 1968 riots, white folk were leaving the inner city in droves and going to live in the suburbs. This left all the inner-city cinemas empty and, as there were no multiplexes in the suburbs yet, the movie companies were in big trouble. Then along came Van Peebles and it was like 'let's jump on this bandwagon... fast'."

The first thing that MGM did was to change the lead of an average "detective against the mob" script from a run-of-the-mill white guy to a double groovy black man. They pulled in Isaac Hayes to write his legendary soundtrack, cast a Van Peebles lookalike, Richard Roundtree, in the lead and Shaft was born - kick-starting the blaxploitation film genre.

Lasting just a few years, the field included a few landmark pictures such as Superfly and Black Caesar, spawned some even better soundtracks and, in many people's opinions, saved Hollywood, but for Van Peebles many of the movies lacked the political edge of Sweetback. "These subsequent films made by the studio made working for the man and enforcing the laws hip, which was the opposite of what my father did," says the director. "Or, even worse, they were saying being a drug dealer was hip, which diluted the revolutionary core and diverted folks' minds from the problems at hand. They were movies made by white studios and, catered to a stereotype that they themselves enforced and were comfortable with.

"But the one great thing these movies did," adds Van Pebbles, "was that they propagated the ensuing black identity, which gave us some pride, gave the world a look at black power and black beauty, popularised the afro and gave a lot of black people a start in the movies."

As Baadasssss most ably depicts, one of the bees in Melvin Van Peebles' considerable bonnet was that he felt that as the director and producer he should be able to employ whomever he wanted to work on his project, and so, in order to avoid union restrictions, he disguised the production as a porno shoot. "This kept the unions away and it worked and I liked it," chuckles Van Peebles, who acted in the movie aged 13. "My father said: 'Not only will I make a movie where the black lead is the hero who kills two crooked cops and gets away with it but I will also have a multiracial crew - women, white, black, hippie, Hispanic, Chinese - because I live in a multiracial world.' Now that really was revolutionary - it hadn't been done before because the unions were totally, 100 per cent white. For me this was a really important aspect of both our movies - him doing it and me telling it."

Surprisingly, in order to make Baadasssss, the respected director had to follow in his father's footsteps and bite a few bullets just to complete his picture. He remortgaged his house, pulled in favours and shot the picture in just 18 days in exactly the same spirit as the original on a budget of just $1m.

"It is hard to get finance for a film like this," says Van Peebles. "On the same day Baadasssss came out in the US, Soul Plane came out, which said that the idea of black people running an airline is a ridiculous joke, while Baadasssss said that the idea people of all colours can make a movie is a possibility. Soul Plane was funded to the tune of $60m by MGM [who made Shaft], while I had to raise $1m personally to make my film and ended up like my dad, doing it by any means necessary; and then directing a fierce independent film playing the star and director of a fierce independent film who happened to be my dad. But at least I got final cut while Soul Plane was probably edited by a committee, so it's my film and it's up to me whether it succeeds or fails."

Maybe one of the best films I have seen about the making of a film, Baadasssss succeeds because Van Peebles, by virtue of his excellent script, direction and performance, slowly sucks you into his father's very real dilemma. As Baadasssss builds momentum and the pressure mounts for Van Peebles Snr, Sweetback transmogrifies from renegade movie to his major mission in life, while we the audience wince - heart in mouth - as Melvin is forced to leave his crew in jail for a weekend, dodges death threats, loses the sight in one eye and finally nervously waits for the audience to show up at his premiere.

As Baadasssss illustrates, Melvin Van Peebles might have been climbing Everest or circumnavigating the globe, but on this occasion his creation of this impossibly radical movie is more than enough to be getting on with.

"And what about the title?" I ask Van Peebles before we part company. "Does it refer to your dad?" "Well, to some extent it probably does," answers the actor-director, chuckling softly.

"But it was originally called How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass and other Like Lessons but when I saw the censorship board they said, and I quote: 'You can't say ass, but then again we did say Jackass; so maybe you can say Badass!' And I thought that's a wonderful title and we agreed and were all very happy."

'Baadasssss' opens today; it is also part of the British Film Institute's Black World 2005 season