Mario Van Peebles is a man with an identity crisis. Deep in thought as he sits by the pool at the W hotel in Los Angeles, the handsome character actor is getting those quizzical "aren't you somebody?" stares from sunbathers. Even though he's appeared in nearly 60 movies, he remains familiar but not famous. He's still waiting to make the kind of mark his father, Melvin, did more than three decades ago, when he directed and starred in the seminal blaxploitation film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."
Ironically, it's through his father that Mario, 47, may have found his chance. His latest film, "Baadasssss!" is a loving tribute to his father's struggle to make "Sweetback." Even though Melvin Van Peebles had just starred in the 1970 hit comedy "The Watermelon Man" and had a deal at Columbia, Hollywood wasn't interested in his pitch about a sexy black antihero who goes on the lam after stomping a couple of racist white cops into the pavement. At a time when most scripts portrayed African-Americans as helpless slaves or "super-Negroes" a la Sidney Poitier, "Sweetback"--with its opening dedication, "To all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man"--was a celebration of urban black power. "It's pretty amazing what my father accomplished," says Mario, who plays Melvin in "Baadasssss!" "It really takes you a while to understand all that became because of his vision."
Now 71, Melvin explains his inspiration this way: "I got tired of white people telling me what black folks want and don't want, and how we were and were not. They told me that black people didn't want to see a movie like 'Sweetback,' where the main character kicked the Man's ass. I was like, 'Are you kidding?' " Hollywood's refusal to finance the film turned out to be a blessing. Executives would surely have balked at the violence and the graphic sex (Melvin wound up with a venereal disease while making the film, which was, as the ads proclaimed, "Rated X by an All White Jury"). But the movie struck a chord with an urban generation still reeling from the deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. With the help of friends, including Bill Cosby, the elder Van Peebles raised $500,000 and shot the film in just 19 days. "I remember that time so clearly, because I was about 12, and that was the first time I really got to know my father," says Mario, whose parents divorced when he was 8. "Which was great in one sense but weird in another, because trying to get that film made nearly drove him nuts."
Mario began his career in "Sweetback," playing his father's character as a boy in the opening sequence. Even by today's standards the scene is shocking, with its depiction of the young Sweetback having sex with an aging prostitute. "That got a lot of attention, but it didn't really faze me," Mario says. "Me and my family had lived around the world and seen so many different things that we were confused about why there was so much fuss. I was more upset that I had to cut my Afro for the part."
Though it initially played in just two theaters, crowds flocked to see the gutsy film, thanks to word of mouth and to Van Peebles's savvy marketing to black radio stations and newspapers. The movie made $14 million--a killing in 1971--and forced Hollywood to rethink black audiences. " 'Sweetback' was the film that black audiences wanted but didn't really know they wanted," says film historian Donald Bogle. "It was a complete backlash to Sidney Poitier's characters. Sidney was often asexual and very middle-class and firmly in the white world. Sweetback was from the street, and Van Peebles made him ooze with sexuality and an attitude that said, 'I'm a mad n----- and I ain't gonna take it no more'." Melvin is fond of saying, "I brought the 'hood to Hollywood." What followed was a succession of black heroes, from Shaft to Superfly.
Breaking into Hollywood as the son of an icon is not easy. After appearing in another of his father's movies--"Identity Crisis"--Mario directed and starred in 1991's "New Jack City" and 1993's "Posse," an all-black Western. But in recent years he's been relegated to character-actor turns, popping up as Malcolm X in "Ali" and in TV movies. "One night I had John Singleton, Reggie Hudlin and a couple of other black filmmakers over to my house," Mario recalls. "We were all laughing and talking. And it hit us: why don't they make movies about people like us? Regular guys doing their thing and trying to make a difference? Instead we get 'Soul Plane.' I mean no disrespect to that film, but that's not the majority of the black community."
Though Mario hesitates to admit it, "Baadasssss!" is a valentine to Dad--a son's attempt to make sure his old man gets his props. "I wanted to show the hell he went through to get that film made and what kind of impact it had on him and his family," Mario says. "What really amazes me is that my father never became angry at people, just at the system, and he didn't let it eat him up." Mario captures his father right down to the Mark Twain sideburns. Such nuance, combined with raw filmmaking reminiscent of the original movie, makes for a fascinating ride down memory lane for those who've seen "Sweetback," and a mind-blowing history lesson for those who haven't.
Maybe in his autobiography, "Spanking the Monkey for the Man," Melvin will tell more of his tale. Or maybe not. "I'm writing an unauthorized biography, because I don't agree with myself about myself," he says, laughing. One thing is for certain. He'll always remain his son's inspiration.