Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mario Van Peebles interview 2005


[Originally published in Rave magazine, Brisbane 15/03/05]

The Revolution had begun even before Shaft had even slipped into his leather jacket: 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the most authentic expression of ghetto rage in cinema history, from upstart black activist Melvin Van Peebles. Andrew Leavold talks to BAADASSSSS! actor/director MARIO VAN PEEBLES.

In Sweetback’s opening scene, young Sweetback (played by a 13 year old Mario Van Peebles) loses his “cinematic cherry” to a willing cathouse employee. The adult Sweetback, played by Mario’s father Melvin (who was also writer, editor and musical director) in a black outfit and black cowboy hat, spears a racist cop, sets fire to a police car, incites several race riots, and embarks on his wildly episodic campaign of terror against “the Man”, all the while running, running, running.

Sweet Sweetback... is like a black diamond squeezed out of its turbulent era. An exploitation film almost avant-garde in its approach, Earth Wind and Fire’s indelible soundtrack is cut up and layered by Van Peebles like a crazed jazz master, as are the saturated hand-held, guerrilla-style 16mm images on screen. More than a film, Sweetback is a radical manifesto, using the ghetto as both location and source of inspiration and spraying the words “nigger” and “motherfucker” like bullets. Its raw, naked sexuality was SO shocking that the MPAA delivered the dreaded “X” rating (“Rated X by an all-white jury!”) usually reserved for pornography. Despite this, the film became a cause celebre among its ghetto audience and the only film to receive the Black Panthers’ seal of approval. It would became the top-grossing independent feature of 1971, drawing in white liberals, hipsters, and the X-rating guaranteeing at least the more adventurous from the raincoat brigade.

Having long since emerged from Melvin’s shadow, actor/director Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Panther) re-experiences his own childhood and relationship with his father in his self-professed “scrappy indie” feature Baadasssss!, a film which goes far beyond the usual Hollywood biopic in style and content. Mario plays his father Melvin during the frenzied production of Sweetback and is note perfect - the downturned mouth, handlebar mustache, the Harley and bandanna, and the protean swagger. Recreating the scenes from Sweetback in the style and at the original locations and cutting them with footage from the original, it’s hard to tell when one film ends and the other begins. The effect is a delirious, intergenerational timewarp: both a document of a crazy moment in film history and a love letter from a son to his father.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES Interview 11/03/05

I rewatched Sweetback a few days before Baadasssss! and if I didn’t I would have missed so many of the visual references to Sweetback - the saturated colours and the superimposed images...

Man, I’m so glad you did that! That’s great. ‘Cause when you go back you realize how close it is, huh?

Exactly. Even down the modern interpretation of the Earth Wind & Fire score. So you’ve done the ultimate love letter to your father’s film.

It’s like a hall of mirrors, man, to be inside of it, and end up having to make it in the spirit of the original, y’know, a million bucks and eighteen days. and making that scrappy independent film. Just like the original, you can’t make something so unusual through the studio system so you have to be prepared to go outside of the system.

How did some of the experiences on Baadasssss! mirror the original Sweetback experience?

Oh, so many ways. The thing about my dad, I felt like sometimes he involved me in the battle without explaining the war. But I don’t know how much about the war a 13 year old kid would understand. If you’re beholding to the McDonalds machine you can’t make Supersize Me. If you’re beholding to the military-industrial complex you can’t make the new movie by Eugene Jarecki called Why We Fight. And you can’t go up against the Man in Baadasssss!, so you have to be ready to say, OK, I’m not going to take the notes, I’m not going to turn it into cinematic Wonderbread and make it Soul Plane on the set just for a white audience or black audience. I’m gonna make it for the whole of the human audience and just make the flick you wanna make. It’s kinda tough - I had to put my house up, I had to use my house as a hotel (laughs), and again when you’re taking people of all colours and all races and you say, “What’s going to unite us... without money?” It’s not like you can throw money at them! You gotta go to Michael Mann and say “Yo, Mann, I ain’t got no money, man! Now look...” And Michael was cool said, “Hey, I’ll produce it”, and (Sweetback) was the first movie that he and his date who became his wife saw 33 years ago at the Chicago State Theater, and now he’s producing the movie and directing me in Ali playing Malcolm (X).

That’s wild...

It’s wild stuff! Growing up with Melvin Van Peebles, I didn’t know how much was live and how much was Memorex. ‘Cause my dad exaggerates.

He understands drama!

But to go back and find out he really did... He had this gorgeous secretary who I thought was adorable as a kid. She was supposed to act in the movie and then she couldn’t ‘cause her boyfriend got jealous and said “I don’t want you near Melvin”, which I understand (laughs). And the boyfriend said “I got a new band, though, and I’m digging his movie, man - my new band is called Earth Wind And Fire...” He winds up doing the music. And then the whole crew gets arrested and thrown in jail for being multiracial with expensive camera equipment. The only one who has bread to loan my dad to finish the movie and bail him out was Bill Cosby. And to go back and talk to Bill Cosby, you wouldn’t know about that involvement. So it’s like the story of making this revolutionary film is, in a way, as empowering as the film itself. ‘Cause my dad was pissed of at the “isms” - sexism, racism, look-ism - but he wasn’t mad at people. And so he’s a guy who says, “I want a crew that looks like the world, man”, you know, with black folks and white folks and Asians and Latinos and hippies... and I guess I was on the set so I represented the kid demographic (laughs). So it was wild. It was like film school for us. This was reliving it. There were literally scenes where I’m now playing my father that I’d lived through before as a kid, it was kinda like deja-vu. Deja-do!

That must have been surreal - there you are on the set playing your dad, a young actor’s playing you, and Ossie Davis is your grandfather!

Ain’t that a trip! Here was another one of the grandfathers of Soul Cinema playing my grandfather! Unreal. And then the fact that my own son is playing the angel that inspires his granddad! If you listen to the flick, the very first voice is “you blamed my mamma” - that’s Melvin’s grandson - then comes me as Melvin!

And there is that great final shot of Melvin finally getting to smoke his unlit stogie!

And doesn’t say a word. The only two people in the testimonials who don’t speak are Mario and Melvin. It’s a whole experience. And it’s kinda cool ‘cause it’s glowing. You do something like this and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like jumping in a pool and hoping there’s gonna be water in it when you land. And to go up to the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and have the film be bought, and I didn’t have to change a frame of it. I turned to my old man and said, “What did you think, man?” He said
“This seat’s got on two legs.” (laughs) And at the end of the day, what’s hip about it is, it’s David versus Goliath. It’s someone going up against this impossible studio machine and making their own scrappy multiracial flick that is empowering to all of us - and getting away with it!

Sweetback really came at a magical moment in time when a film that was basically a radical political manifesto could become such a hit. I don’t think anyone would ALLOW it to happen today.

I think you’re right. What happens is, when the (prison) bars are clear, it’s an easier target, at least you know where you stand. The fight is clearer. Take for example South Africa. Twenty years ago with apartheid, very clearly oppression is in your face. Mandela gets out, he becomes president, makes tremendous changes, and guess what? Twenty years later the same key families own the gold mines, the diamond mines, the military-industrial complex and the stock exchange. The bars aren’t in your face. It’s like Malcolm said: if you take a pot and put it on the stove and keep the lid pressed down tight, eventually it’ll blow. There’s going to be a revolt. It may take time but it’ll blow. But if you periodically lift the lid up a little to let a little steam out, you can keep people oppressed forever. If you say, “Well, we’ll give you a couple of Oscar awards”, that’s great! But who controls the studios and makes the big decisions? There’s not one Hispanic, not one Asian, not one African-American, not one woman - it’s the same group of guys that was there when my dad did Sweetback. It’s the same regime. “Oh we have choices” - use Colgate or Kraft or win on American Idol - and you got this illusion of freedom to let a little steam out the pot. So in a way the fight is more nebulous. But it becomes clearer when you go to make a film like Baadasssss! and it’s not going to be slotted into the Soul Plane hip-hop comedy slot or the festival film slot, that an empowering film across colour lines like this, is still something on some level that they’re worried about.

It’s very sly.

It’s very sly, exactly. I’m glad you caught that, man. And that’s two generations of that. If you stay in your box, it’s cool. It’s like Malcolm comes back from Mecca and says “I’ve prayed next to Muslims of all colours - it’s not what your colour is, it’s where your heart is that’s important.” And that’s when he becomes a danger and that’s when they take him out. If you teach separatism that’s one thing. But it doesn’t surprise me - we’re living in a time when Bush is in a very powerful position. He sees the world in terms of an Axis of Evil and evil-doers, and therefore by logical steps we are “good”. It’s a very polarized look at the globe. The complexity in between is that we are all capable of good and evil, and that’s when you see my dad. The studio is “Oh, you gotta make him more likable”, but the reality is he’s a tough cat who would do stuff as a father I would never do.

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