Like father like son, the perpetual desire to entertain and inform continues for Melvin Van Peebles and his son Mario. The dynamic duo walked confidently side by side into the room, wearing twin, original Baadasssss! T-shirts and sporting infectious smiles.
Back in 1971, Melvin wrote, directed and starred in what was, at that time, one of the most controversial and edgy films on the market, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song — which was allowed to be seen in only two theaters in the United States. Fast forward 33 years and one might think that time is standing still. After all, it’s now Melvin’s son, Mario, who is experiencing many of the same dilemmas that his father went through while filming Sweetback.
According to Mario, when he finished the script for Baadasssss! and sent it to the studios, he received a litany of responses.
"They said that the material has got texture, is original and has heart, but if the character is going to be this complex, can’t you make it more for the sort of cerebral, ‘intelligentsia’ festival audience?" Mario recalls, adding that the studio heads strongly insisted that he make a hip-hop comedy instead because that’s what his urban audience wanted to see. And, in the long run, it would definitely be a moneymaker. This situation almost played as déjà vu since the elder Van Peebles faced a similar ordeal after completing Watermelon Man in 1970, which was followed shortly thereafter by Sweetback.
"Other studios said it was too political, too funny, not funny enough, too dramatic," Mario continues. "‘You gotta make Melvin more likeable.’ What if the audience doesn’t connect with Melvin?’" says Mario, elaborating. "Here’s my dad’s life, man. His life was multi-racial and political and tragic and funny. He’s a tough guy. He is who he is, and has said, ‘whoever plays me, don’t make me too damn nice.’" Mario certainly achieved that goal in Baadasssss! where his dad plays an arrogant hustler who makes huge sacrifices in order for his vision to come true.
In Sweetback, Melvin shot in certain locations without a permit, extended himself financially and even used his own son, who was 13 at the time, as the young Sweetback who loses his virginity to an older woman. Filming Baadasssss! was an experience that served as a modern-day David and Goliath story for the studio system, about a man with an impossible dream and his complex relationship with his son. If Mario had made the changes that the studio so desperately wanted, he would have totally changed the dynamics of the film and ultimately killed its spirit. The film, in essence, would have been completely different from what he had originally envisioned.
Like his father Melvin, Mario understands that the only color Hollywood sees is green. He recalls a dinner party he had about five years ago with director friends, including John Singleton (Higher Learning), F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) and Reggie Hudlin (House Party), during which they all reached the same conclusion: They were filmmakers who were being heavily persuaded not to make the films that they wanted to make. These were educated men who didn’t get into serious trouble, knew who their fathers were, "and yet we weren’t being allowed to make movies about people like us," Mario relates.
"We were being told that all our audience wanted to see was modern-day minstrel shows, hip-hop comedies or shoot-em’-in-the-ass flicks," Mario continues. We were being told that the audience we had wore baggy jeans, big sneakers and that’s about it. So there was a glass ceiling, and if we were lucky, we would be invited by the dominant culture to make movies like The Italian Job. [We were told that] that’s a good thing, and we should go out and make those films and show them we could do that as filmmakers. That it doesn’t have to do with race or anything — just make that film."
Mario believes that if he or his friends want to make a film with people of color, you can’t make a Good Will Hunting because, as they were told by studio execs, the audience will have trouble following its complex storyline. "You couldn’t make a Lost in Translation for Hispanic folks or a mixed cast or a black cast," he says. "Too complex. Audiences won’t follow it."
Mario sees this as a challenge, not a hindrance, though, and did other projects before diving into Baadasssss!
The film, which Melvin saw for the first time at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival when it screened simultaneously with Sweetback, received a standing ovation. According to Mario, when he asked his dad for his opinion, Melvin told him that Baadasssss! was "like Seabiscuit on two legs."
Sundance creator Robert Redford also asked Melvin what he thought. "Well, my son is my annuity." To this, Redford responded, "No, your son is your continuity." Apparently, Mario appreciated the good comeback.
While he is an influence for Baadasssss!, Melvin wants to make it clear that he had nothing to do with his son’s film, other than optioning the book (of the same title) to his son — for a price, of course.
"Business is business," says Melvin with a smile. "I knew that Hollywood had an Achilles pocketbook. I knew there was a great deal of an audience that had been shortchanged.
"It’s hard to imagine now, but up to that time the word was [that] black movies never made any significant money," Melvin continues. "And my answer to that was, how would you know if you never made a black movie?"
Soon after the success of Melvin’s Sweetback and with the hope of money to be made, came the birth of blaxploitation films, which included such classics as Superfly, Coffy and Shaft, the latter of which was originally written about a Caucasian detective.
As for the films of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, there are many parallels between Sweetback and Baadasssss! While Sweetback took 19 days to shoot, Baadasssss took 18. While Sweetback was shown in only Detroit and Atlanta upon its release, Baadasssss! will open in Los Angeles and New York markets. And while Mario was in Sweetback, Melvin does a cameo in Baadasssss! But that’s where the similarities end. Mario didn’t get death threats or lose sight in his eye like his father. Also, he can easily assemble a multi-racial crew that is union-approved.
So like father like son, the cyclical instinct to create is seemingly never ending. After experiencing what it was like being his father Melvin, Mario reflects, "Walking in those shoes for a little while in those 18 days, trying to get folks of all colors to come through the door and work out, it was a trip."