Mario Van Peebles has been in more than 50 films during his three-decade career, and directed seven more. But never before have the stakes been as personal as they are in his newest effort. Called Baadasssss!, the new film tells the story behind his father, Melvin's, groundbreaking 1971 rallying cry of a movie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, one of the first films to bring a distinctive black sensibility to the screen.
As his father did with Sweetback's, Mario wears many hats in the new film, which will be screened tonight at 8 as the closing feature of the 2004 Maryland Film Festival. He stars in it (playing his father), co-wrote it (with Dennis Haggerty) and co-produced it. Heck, having played a small part in Sweetback's, as a young boy having his first sexual encounter, he even helped inspire it.
"He was a tough cat. He is a tough cat," Mario, 47, says of his father, as he sits in the back of a minivan winding its way through the streets of Washington. Both elder and younger Van Peebles are in town to drum up support for the film, which is slated to go into wide release next month.
"Not only would he change the cinematic landscape, but he even changed the way we make films: He would insist on a crew that looked like America. It would be white folks and black folks and Asians together."
Mario may sound like a proud son, but he isn't exaggerating. To say that Sweetback's exploded into Hollywood's consciousness in 1971 wouldn't be an understatement. Made despite a total lack of interest from the established studios, the film introduced Hollywood to an audience it never knew it had. Black audiences flocked to the film -- drawn by its black hero (who stomps a couple of racist white cops unconscious, then has to run for his life), its immersion in black street culture, its howling, knife-edged soundtrack (provided by an early incarnation of Earth, Wind and Fire) and its high-energy, defiantly no-frills look.
"I knew it worked and that it would change Hollywood," says 71-year-old Melvin. "Somebody said I put the 'hood in Hollywood."
Thirty-three years later, his son's tribute film is based on a 1971 book, named the same as the film, in which Melvin chronicled the film's production and his desperate searches for financing (Bill Cosby loaned him money) and distribution (it opened at a single rundown theater in Detroit). What audiences will see at the Charles tonight is a celebration of Melvin's tenacity in creating an important chapter in the fight by African-Americans to be seen as vital cogs in American culture.
Mario first was inspired to tell his father's story while on the set of Michael Mann's 2001 Ali. Cast as Malcolm X in the bio-pic of heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, Mario found himself surrounded by reminders of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s -- including Ali himself.
"I was on the set, and Ali kept asking me about my dad," Mario says. "And I realized that this movie talked about Ali being the first sort-of politically astute athlete not just to strap on some gloves and punch people in the box, but to stand for something, to stand for an ideal. ... And I thought, 'If we can get the Ali movie made now, what about my dad's movie?'
"It's interesting that Malcolm was saying at the time, 'Look, power can achieve nothing without demand. If they don't let you in a restaurant, [our] singing We Shall Overcome is only going to go so far. Build your own restaurant.' "
That, Mario realized, is what his father did. Melvin already had been given a three-picture directing deal by Columbia based on the success of his 1970 comedy Watermelon Man (starring Godfrey Cambridge as a white man who wakes up black one morning), and the studio was clamoring for another comedy.
But Melvin instead opted to make a movie that reflected the reality of what many blacks were experiencing. Columbia wasn't interested (officials there later tore up his contract, Melvin says), but the movie got made anyway -- and grossed more than $14 million.
The success of Sweetback's paved the way for the blaxploitation genre that was popular throughout the '70s (without Sweetback's, there would have been no Shaft or Superfly). It made Melvin Van Peebles a hero in the black power struggle (the Black Panthers were among Sweetback's earliest and strongest supporters) and an inspiration to a generation of filmmakers.
Mario, an accomplished director himself (New Jack City), decided there on the set of Ali that the time was right to tell at least this part of his father's story. So he approached the elder Van Peebles about getting the rights to his book.
"I figured I'd get some consideration," Mario says with a laugh. "He said, 'Yeah, I love you, but I don't [want to] get screwed on the deal: You can buy the book. And whoever plays me -- Don't make me too damn nice.' "
Where: The Charles Theatre, 1711 North Charles St., Baltimore
When: 8 p.m. tonight (closing night of the Maryland Film Festival)
Tickets: $25, available at the door or at the festival box office across the street from the theater