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It’s a long way from the still largely racist days of America in 1971 … or is it? Mario Van Peebles has made a genre-defying film about the making of his father Melvin’s revolutionary indie film, which marks the birth of black cinema, and he thinks the changes are skin deep … as it were. He talks to Andrew L. Urban.

Chips were the big hit of the lunch, as indi filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, his 11 year old son Mandela (yes, named after Nelson), Channel Nine’s Sunday program film critic Peter Thompson, his brother the legendary actor, Jack Thompson and two ladies from Imagine Film Distribution (releasing the film) sit around a table on the terrace of the harbourside Sebel hotel on a typically fine late summer Sydney afternoon. The mood is casual, with Mandela tucking into the thin, French style potato chips, while his dad forks up vegies from his son’s plate. I’m chomping tasty spring rolls and Peter Thompson knocks off a plate of Mexican style mashed avocado, tomatoes and something else, with corn chips. Jack is asked if he wants another beer; “birds don’t fly with one wing,” he answers.

"the origins of his family name"

The mood is relaxed; I park my digi tape toy amidst the clutter of half empty dishes and the others disperse. They missed a good yarn, as Mario Van Peebles – in response to my first official question - begins to explain the origins of his family name. “After my dad’s people were freed from slavery, they were taken by bus up north, but then their bus broke down, and the family got into a smaller coach, a van…and ever since they arrived like that, they became known as the Van Peebles…” Then he splutters into his green peas with carrot mash and comes clean. “That’s bullshit!” and cracks a big smile. The truth is vague and boring compared to that, so we move on, to talk about his film, Baadasssss! 

It’s a feature length ‘making of’, if you like, but a remarkably entertaining one: in 1971, black actor and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (played by Mario, his son) sets about making his second film, on the heels of his comedy, Watermelon Man. But this time it’s not comedy on his mind, but a gritty action thriller in which a bad ass black guy pays back the injustices of some corrupt and racist police. Impossible to finance – until Bill Cosby (played here by T.K. Carter) agrees to stump up $50,000 – the film has to be made underground to avoid the unions, posing as a black porn movie. But that’s just the start of the emotion-laden adventure in independent political filmmaking, as Van Peebles and his family stake all on a revolutionary film in which blacks are heroes. It becomes the highest grossing independent film of the year, and opens the door for black soul cinema.

If context gives us the whole truth, Baadasssss! is not only based on a true story, it IS the truth. The place and time of the events are as important as the how and what of them. Mario Van Peebles could be forgiven for telling the story of his remarkable father’s astonishing achievement against the odds, with a degree of bias – but no need. There is none; his old man looks just as candidly conflicted and loveable-hateable as anyone’s (see end of story).

"This resiliant, dynamic film defies categories"

This resiliant, dynamic film defies categories: it’s not exactly a biopic, because it deals with one undertaking in a lifetime of doing things. It’s not documentary, because the film’s story is dramatised. It’s not an action film, although there is plenty of that in it. It defies genres, and that was hard for financiers to accept - except for Showtime Networks, which put up the bare-bone budget of US$1 million that squashed production into 18 days – and Mario wasn’t about to change the script. (Sony Classics acquired distribution rights on completion, when the film played to a standing ovation at its preview screening.)

He quotes Martin Luther King here, about the standard reasons that motivate people: politicians ask 
‘is it popular?’; business people ask ‘is it profitable?’; while others ask ‘is it right?’ And he puts himself in the latter category.

So to make the story of his father’s historic adventure, Mario faced the same old financing problems, although for different reasons. And it’s those differences that I ask about. “Yes, that’s a good question, and I’ve thought about that a bit. Take South Africa during apartheid…and of course any other oppressive or totalitarian regime, wherever there are real, tangible prison bars that we can see and touch. There’s something in the human spirit that says ‘screw that, we’re going to overcome it’. It may take time, but eventually the Iron Curtain will fall…eventually the Berlin Wall will fall….eventually the bars will be torn out. Human beings can’t live with bars forever.

“Now during Apartheid, there were maybe five very powerful families in South Africa, who owned the diamond mines, the gold mines, the stock market and the military-industrial complex, and politically ran things. So then Mandela is freed, he gains political standing, he is a wonderful magnanimous man …. But guess what. So many years later, its’ still the same five families that own the diamond mines, the gold mines, the stock market and the military-industrial complex….BUT, the overt bars are no longer there.

“When my dad was making Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (in 1971), the bars were still there.”

In Mario Van Peebles’ view, progress has been limited. He likens white US society to the chef who lets off steam from the pot by gently lifting the lid occasionally. “So you get Oscars handed out, and it looks like things are changing, but, for instance, take a look at the studios: there’s isn’t a black American or Latino in the top job.” 

"enjoying the accolades for Baadasssss"

If he sounds like an angry young man of 50-odd, he doesn’t look it. A relaxed manner and an easy smile make up the package of a lean and simply dressed guy in a smart black T shirt; he jokes with Mandela and gives off a vibe of being comfortable with himself, without being arrogant. He is enjoying the accolades for Baadasssss! and he’s enjoying being taken seriously both as actor and director. 

When he first set out with the screenplay, he was a little apprehensive about his father’s reaction. Old Melvin didn’t say much except to ask who would play him? “Me.” And who’s going to direct it? “Me.” There was a pause, then old Melvin mumbled, “well, don’t make me too f***ing nice.”

Published March 17, 2005

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Mario Van Peebles


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