About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
May 2004
BAADASSSS!: An Interview with Mario Van Peebles

By Godfrey Powell

BAADASSSS!: An Interview with Mario Van Peebles

In 1971 Melvin Van Peebles took on the heavyweights of the Hollywood industry and decided to make a film on his own with his financing and his vision and the film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, became an overnight hit and the catalyst for independent filmmaking. His son Mario was a part of that film and has since become a filmmaker as well having helmed "New Jack City" as well as act in numerous pictures. In a tribute to his dad, Mario has a film showcasing the steps his father took to make that legendary film. In "Baadasss!" Mario plays his father Melvin while also serving as the director, producer, and screenwriter of the film. Like father, like son. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Mario talks about his reason he made this film as well as his own experience on the original production.

How did the movie Badaaass come about?

MVP: I thought it was a very interesting story. The David vs. Goliath of a man against the big studios. I have always been fascinated about that time period. We just had the assassination of Martin and Malcolm. The Civil Rights movement. I did a film on the Black Panthers. The other part is there's this guy that has this relationship with his kid. Now some of the issues that prompted my father to make this film in the first place, we are coming back to now with the repel of affirmative action, the issue with gays and we seem to be heading into a direction of a bigger gap between the haves and have nots. Independent films film the void left by studios by showing a functional family that is functional but not the nuclear 2.5 kids kinda things. It's hard to comprehend the significance of what crazy Melvin did without understanding the political context in which he had to act. During the Sixties, most African- Americans were considering themselves "colored." The subtext of being colored was that "colored" was just slightly different from white. During this time the non-violent civil rights movement, spearheaded by Dr. King was making measured gains.

There are a lot of issues that arise in the relationship between you and Dad. Did you two talk about these things before the film?

MVP: Yeah, we worked through a lot of things. I wanted to do that when I became a parent. Some of the things we worked through he remembered, some of it he didn't. And I think that I'll give my kids blue. And they'll give they'll kids red because they didn't get enough red and that'll be an ongoing thing. What did happen during the course of 1970, I got to know him as human being and acknowledge him as father.

Your father interviewed Malcolm X?

MVP: I had grown up in a run n gun "do for self" indie film family; on ALI, I was like a poor kid in a candy store. With a budget, I mean a real big ass studio film, Michael Mann research budget. I visited prisons to meet with inmates who had converted to Islam while incarcerated and a car and driver took me there. Any books I requested usually appeared the next day. I met with Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son who had taken over the nation of Islam, Mike Wallace, Minister Farrakhan and Ms. Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter who was instrumental, giving me permission to humanize Malcolm as a father. One of the last stops on my research pilgrimage was with my own Dad, who it turns out interviewed Malcolm at length when he was in Paris. Malcolm had said some disturbing things and the article was never published, some believe at the insistence of the U.S. State Department. Shortly thereafter, he returned to New York where he was assassinated. I never knew the motherfucker got to interview Malcolm X. And he took his sweet time about revealing the contents of said discussion.

Can you talk about your experience on the set of the original production?

MVP: Although at age thirteen I had production assisted on SWEETBACK and played a couple roles in it including losing my cinematic cherry I was only peripherally aware of the slings and arrows my father was suffering during its making. He was forced to self finance, constantly on the brink of ruin, his crews got arrested and jailed, death threats, and yet he refused to submit his film to the all white MPAA ratings board for approval. He said they're not a jury of my peers; the dominant culture has been approving negative, crippling images of people of color for years, why should they decide what our cinematic agenda should be? The film then received an X rating. My DAD, true to form, printed up t-shirts that read "Rated X by an all white jury" and made it part of his marketing campaign. At the film's completion all he had left was about $13, sight in one eye, and only two theatres in the whole United States agreed to play it. In spite of the odds, the film caught fire with the Black Panthers who embraced it as a "revolutionary masterpiece" and made it required viewing for their members. Shortly thereafter the students, Yippies and Hippies came the "mother country radicals" as the Panthers dubbed them. In the end, SWEETBACK a funky black X-rated independent everyone had passed on, out grossed LOVE STORY and caught the Hollywood studios totally off guard. If they won't let you in at the bottom go in at the top. As Malcolm has said, "Do for self" don't beg for a seat at their restaurant, build your own. Melvin didn't beg to be in their movies, he shot his own. By basically self-financing MVP was his own studio. The inherent risk with "do for self" cinema is personal financial ruin. He took that gamble for himself and our family and this time it paid off.

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy