DATE July 1, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mario Van Peebles discusses his new movie about
the making of "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song" in 1971
ERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is actor and director Mario Van Peebles. He made his directorial
debut with the 1991 movie "New Jack City," in which he also co-starred. He
also directed and starred in the Western "Posse," played Malcolm X in the film
"Ali," and directed "Panther," a film about the Black Panther Party. Van
Peebles made his movie debut when he was a boy, playing a small role in the
1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song." "Sweetback" was written and
directed by Mario's father, Melvin Van Peebles, who also starred in it. This
low-budget independent film with an African-American hero was a big success
and proved to Hollywood that there was a market for black action films. Mario
Van Peebles' new film, "Baadasssss!" is about the making of his father's film
"Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song." Mario wrote and directed "Baadasssss!"
and plays his father. Here's Mario as his father, Melvin, in a scene from the
film. Melvin's agent is trying to negotiate a three-picture deal with the
studio. The studio wants a follow-up to his film "Watermelon Man," then it
won't have anything to do with "Sweetback." The agent is played by Saul
(Soundbite of "Baadasssss!")
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin Van Peebles) This idea I got, it's kind of
like a ghetto Western.
Mr. SAUL RUBINEK: (As Howie) Ghetto Western?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin Van Peebles) In fact, the brother even
wears like a black kind of cowboy hat.
Mr. RUBINEK: (As Howie) Yeah?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin Van Peebles) And dig this, man. At the end
of the movie, where he gets away, words come blazing across the screen:
`Baadasssss nigger's gonna come back and collect some dues!'
Mr. RUBINEK: (As Howie) `Baadasssss nigger'--What? Have you lost your mind?
What, are you taking drugs now? Listen to me. Listen to me. Melvin, listen
to me. On "Watermelon Man" your white lead is supposed to wake up from this
nightmare where he's a black guy and turn back into being white again. And
you said, `No, no, being black is not a nightmare,' and you didn't shoot the
ending the studio wanted. Who backed you up 100 percent?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: (As Melvin Van Peebles) You're the man, Howie.
Mr. RUBINEK: (As Howie) Me. So why are you doing this to me? I can't take
this kind of inflammatory (censored) to a major studio. Nobody legitimate is
going to touch "Baadasssss." No one! You know how hard we worked to get
here. Melvin, just do the (censored) comedy, OK? All right, look, they're
coming. Now, listen, you know what this is? You're terrified you're going to
fail so you're failing yourself. Nothing to do with being black or blue or
green, do you hear me? It's self-destruction.
Mr. RUBINEK: (As Howie) Allen(ph). How you doing?
ALLEN: Man, how you doing? Good to see you.
Mr. RUBINEK: (As Howie) So listen...
GROSS: Mario Van Peebles, welcome to FRESH AIR. What do you consider to be
the importance of your father's film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song"?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: What my dad did with "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss
Song" was make the first black power film. And so when "Sweetback" burst on
the scene, and suddenly all these folks who were feeling the same way
coalesced behind it and "Sweetback" made for way under a million makes some
$15 million when it was about $1 a ticket. So that would be--Terry, that's
about 150 million a day if my math is correct. So it was a huge phenomenon
because after that Hollywood, which has an Achilles' pocketbook, saw
"Sweetback" make all that money, they had a movie about a white detective,
they changed it to a black detective immediately, and called that movie
"Shaft." And then after that came "Superfly" and then the "Foxy Browns," etc.,
and the, quote-unquote, era of soul cinema or blaxploitation, depending on
your take, was born.
GROSS: So would you just like summarize the plot of "Sweetback"?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song" is
basically about a flawed street hustler who turns into what the Panthers
dubbed a `revolutionary,' that this is a guy who goes from sort of bling-bling
mentality and starts to go from the `What about me getting paid?' to `What
about us as a people getting through?' And the Panthers loved it because it
was, like I said, about a street hustler who becomes a revolutionary and a lot
of the Panthers themselves were street brothers and sisters who got more of a
political outlook. And that's why they endorsed "Sweetback." Huey Newton and
Bobby Seale made "Sweetback" required viewing for the Panther Party. But what
they said about the subsequent films was--often the subsequent films that
followed and intimidated the formula made being a cophead, i.e., working for
the status quo, or even being a drug dealer head, which is even more
counterrevolutionary. So that's loosely that's the story of "Sweetback."
GROSS: Now why did you want to make a film about the making of the film?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. Great. That's a good--well, you know, there
was an interesting process for me, why did I make "Baadasssss!" and I was on
the set of "Ali" being directed by Michael Mann and we had these great sort of
political discussions. And Michael is a real historian and, of course, Ali is
there himself. And I started to think about the notion if Ali were, you know,
one of the first athletes to use the ring not just to box but to stand for
Then Melvin Van Peebles was one of the first filmmakers to use the silver
screen not just to entertain us but to stand for something, to say, `We no
longer want to be depicted as butlers and maids, or as uber negroes trying to
fit in?' and `Guess who's coming for dinner.' That's fine. It's God's place,
but there's also a place for black folks in cinema that do live to the end,
that do have a sexuality, that are empowered and are not just sort of dealing
with the oppressor. And so I thought, `No, I'll go see my dad,' my dad's got
a great book on the making of "Sweetback" and he's got the book on the shelf.
You know, so I go to see the old man. And my dad said, `Yeah, I love you. If
you want the book, I don't want to get screwed on the deal. You have to
option it and pay for it like everybody else. And if you play me or whoever
plays me, don't make me too damn nice.' And I wrote the script with Dennis
Haggerty and we sent it out, and as you saw in the movie "Baadasssss!" you
know, I didn't sugarcoat him. He is who he is.
GROSS: Now you were 12 years old when your father was making "Sweet
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, 12 going on 13.
GROSS: Now you have a small famous or infamous part in...
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yes.
GROSS: ..."Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song." I want you to describe the
scene that you're in.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Well, actually I'm in two scenes. One scene...
GROSS: You know the scene I want you to describe.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...people tend to remember more than others...
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...like Lipicar(ph) where I did keep my Afro. And
the other scene is the beginning of the movie where I play ironically
Sweetback as a kid. So I'm playing my dad's character as a kid, and now in
"Baadasssss!" I'm playing my dad as an adult. But in the Sweetback scene as a
kid, you see how Sweetback gets his name, and Sweetback was an old sort of
blues term about a guy that was good at making love. And so as a kid, he gets
initiated with his prostitute in a brothel and I play the kid in that scene,
and then it turns into my dad playing Sweetback, I often tease him that I'd
like another crack at the role now. But, you know, at the time, I didn't want
to--I didn't want to be working with him on the movie. After a while, he
got--my dad and I always didn't get along. `I would never put my kids in a
scene like this.' So I have a lot of differences with him, and I still have
differences with him, but I came to understand differently as a man, you know,
walking in their shoes.
GROSS: Well, in 1990, I interviewed your father and I asked him about why he
cast you in that scene and I want to play you that part of the interview.
It'll just take a minute. So here it is, a 1990 interview with Melvin Van
Peebles who is the father of my guest Mario Van Peebles.
(Soundbite of 1990 interview)
GROSS: "Sweetback," the movie opens with a 10-year-old sweetback finding a
home for himself in a whorehouse and having his sexual initiation with a
40-year-old woman. And it's a fairly explicitly done scene. They're both
nude. He's in between her legs, and this is your son in that role--your
10-year-old son. I was astonished when I found out it was your son. What
made you decide to cast him in that part?
Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, one, he tends to look like me...
Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: ...being my son and all...
Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: ...and what I always found very interesting was
people saying, `But, it's your son,' but every child is someone's son and I
wouldn't ask my son or myself to do anything that I wouldn't ask of anyone
else's child. I don't have that differentiation of, `Well, it's mine and,
therefore, it cannot be.'
GROSS: Let me just ask you how much did your son know about sex when that
scene was shot. I mean, did he get what was happening?
Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: Well, let me put it this way. He wanted a bicycle
for Christmas so he didn't have a lot of leverage and I didn't ask him
actually. He did say something rather funny, though. He said, `Dad, is this
going to be an X-movie?' I said, `Yes, it is.' `Phew, I don't want the kids
at school to see me.'
GROSS: OK. So that's Melvin Van Peebles recorded in 1990.
Mario, what did you think of his answer to that, he wouldn't have asked his
son to do anything that he wouldn't have asked anyone else's son to do and he
wouldn't have asked anyone else's son to do something that he couldn't ask his
own son to do?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know what? I didn't enjoy it at all. I didn't
want to be in that scene. I didn't want to have to give that lovely bike
back. That bike had a banana seat, you know, and I didn't want to get my Afro
cut. Luckily, I got to keep my, you know, Afro intact. I wish I still had it
GROSS: This was a flashback sequence. So your father wanted you to cut the
Afro and have shorter hair so that it would look time appropriate.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, for it--but I wound up getting to wear a skin
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...I was saying at that time we had a lot of
differences, you know...
GROSS: Now one of...
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...and I think I show that in the movie. I mean, you
know, and we've continued to grow as people and as men...
GROSS: One of the things your...
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: ...but I've been pretty honest about it.
GROSS: ...father mentioned when I was talking to him is that you asked how
the movie would be rated and you were relieved when he told you it would be
X-rated because you didn't want your friends to see you nude in that scene.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Right.
GROSS: Did your friends see you in the scene?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: A couple of them did and then I got a lot of date
GROSS: Oh, really? So it worked in your favor.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Like I said, I wouldn't mind another shot now. You
say, `Well, I'm not getting another shot. I had to fill in for you last
GROSS: Now you were in the position--I mean, you not only, like, play your
father in "Baadasssss!" but you're in your father's position of having to cast
a boy to play the role that your father made you play when he was making his
film. So how did you cast for it? Who did you choose? And how explicit did
you want to make your version of his scene?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Well, I thought I didn't want to make anyone do that
scene twice, so in "Baadasssss!" I just used the original footage of me as a
kid in "Sweetback" during that scene. So the kid I cast wasn't going to have
to do anything like that and that's just something that I wanted to do. See,
I'm not going to, you know, do unto someone else what I didn't like done unto
me, but I did want to show the scene because I thought it was a point in my
life and it just showed something interesting about Melvin that he was sort of
that great Santini-esque father, almost that which does not kill you in an
Nietzsche-esque way makes you stronger. And if I bounce this basketball off
your head a little bit, well, you'll be tough and you'll know how to deal and,
you know--so he has his whole philosophy and, you know, I'm a filmmaker and
I've benefited from him, you know, knocking down the doors he knocked down.
GROSS: Did your father charge you a lot of money for rights to use the scene
in your film?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: That's a good question, Terry. This guy is a trip,
man. So I go to my dad, I say, `OK. Now, listen, I've got the movie funded.'
So I go to see my old man 'cause I wanted to put some clips of his film
"Sweetback" in my film "Baadasssss!" and he said, `Great. Great. You know,
just tell me the scenes you want and I'll put them up and you could pay for
them.' I couldn't believe it. I was, like, `This is product placements.
People will see "Baadasssss!" and want to see "Sweetback." What are you
talking about? This is product placement. He goes, `No, no, no. You've got
pay for them just like everybody else.' So sure enough I wound up writing him
a check. I think it was for $2,500 and giving it to him which he promptly
cashed and then he turned around and said, `By the way, I want to take you and
all your bad-ass kids on vacation,' and he wound up spending about $5,000 to
take us on this lovely vacation on the island in Guana and take my sister and
her kids as well.
So he's a funny dude 'cause on one hand, he's doing the business deal with his
son and he's, you know, taking the money, and then in the other pocket, he's
putting twice as much back but that's Melvin Van Movies.
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter, director and actor Mario Van Peebles. His
new film is called "Baadasssss!" We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter, director and actor Mario Van Peebles. In
his new film "Baadasssss!" he stars as his father, actor, writer and director
Melvin Van Peebles. "Baadasssss!" is about the making of Melvin's 1971 movie
"Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song."
I think the way you play your father in your movie "Baadasssss!" kind of walks
a line between obsessively adhering to his artistic vision and being selfish
and walks the line between being confident and arrogant. And I thought, not
knowing him, that seemed to have a ring of truth to it. How did you see him
when you were 12 when he was making the movie? Did you see him as confident
or arrogant? Did you see him as selfish?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know, I don't know that as 12, I analyzed it in
GROSS: And when I say selfish, I mean, because he was putting a lot of family
kind of interests on the back burner to make this movie. He was losing money.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Oh, totally obsessed, yes.
GROSS: He was totally obsessed. He was losing money.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Single vision. Yes. Yeah.
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: You know, he's a driven cat, and, you know, there's
that scene in "Baadasssss!" where he says to Big T--the crew has spent a
weekend in jail, and Big T who's the big, you know, muscled sound man is
really pissed by this and my dad has that scene where he says, `Look, you
know, this is bigger than you. I've got all of my stuff on the line and all
my family's stuff. This is a war. It's our war to take back our imagery. We
will not be butlers. We won't be shuffling. It's bigger than you. It's
bigger than me. And if you don't know that, then quit, you know? And if you
say you're going to kick my ass, do it. And if I was afraid of you, I
wouldn't be the kind of brother to get this thing done.'
And that's very much my pop and he's still that way to this day. What he
believes in, he stands for, and I respect that. And he made changes--I
wouldn't have been able to get "Baadasssss!" done the same way. I mean, now,
30 years later, I could get a union crew that was multiracial where there were
women on the crew, there were Asians on the crew. My DP was a
63-year-old--year young Jewish brother. And my Asian set decorator and
designer and the young sister with the 'fro who did the wardrobe, I could get,
'cause my dad had broken the unions and made sure that these people could
I directed a film called "New Jack City" in 1991, '90, and the guy that came
to me who was my producer, Preston Holmes, said, `You know how I got my job?'
I said, `How?' He said, `'Cause your dad was willing to get fired so that all
of us could come on as crew,' and he did get fired and he insisted we stay and
that's how I got my job. And so I look at the changes he made, I'm, like,
`Wow, I don't know if I'd have the freedom I do now as a filmmaker had I not
had, you know, this dad who was willing to pay the cost to be the godfather of
GROSS: I know actors often feel that when they put on the costumes or, you
know, the wardrobe for a movie that they are transformed by those closes. Now
in your case, you were wearing what I imagine where clothes very similar to
what you remembered your father wearing when your father made "Sweet
Sweetback." So how did you feel in those clothes saying the things you
remembered your father saying...
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Right.
GROSS: ...and doing your best to become him? Could you just, like, talk
about what that felt like?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Oh, to play your father, making a film that you
remember him making and you were on that set--I had some of the very same
clothes that he wore, that sort of pimpy crush-velvet gold obnoxious outfit,
for example. I don't know where he got that outfit. That thing was dreaded.
Anyway, I had them get me another outfit and make me an outfit like that, and
we were shooting a scene in LA in the Hood, and since it was an independent
film, and I only had 18 days to make the movie, I used my own truck. See,
that was my camera vehicle.
So I had my truck and I had the DP stick the camera out the window and he
hadn't been to the Hood, so he's a little nervous. He's sticking the camera
out the window, I said, `OK. Here's the deal. We don't have permits for any
of this. I'm going to walk on the other side of the street, and when I signal
you, I'm going to run through the ghetto and you photograph me but we'll only
get one shot at it because the second time I run through they're going to
recognize me.' So I got on the Mac pimp-daddy suit, I've got the mustache just
like Dad, and I signal him. He starts driving the truck. They're shooting
out the window and I run past these old cats in the Hood. And one brother
looks up, he'd been drinking ripple on that same corner for, like, 90 years,
and the guy looks up and he sees me running and he goes, `Sweetback's back.
He came back. The brother came back just like he said. He came back.' It was
We went to the very same places my dad went in the ghetto 'cause he was
avoiding the unions and in the desert 'cause the unions couldn't find him and
they were scared to go in the Hood, and we went to the same locations and did
the same stuff, I mean, 33 years later. In fact, we even shot on the very
street he lived on, his office was on.
GROSS: You know how no matter how much you love somebody, they often have,
like, a certain gesture that really gets on your nerves, I'm wondering if your
father had something like that, that you had to recreate when you were playing
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, I did. Oh, there are many things. One is he
eats with his fingers and what he does is he says he doesn't want to eat
anything. He likes to stay nice and slim. He's got a great stomach. He's,
you know, can still outrun me. He's 71 years old. He's a bad brother, but
how he does that is psychologically he's understood that what he doesn't order
won't make him fat. So he encourages you to order something, he gets a mere
salad or whatever and then he'll reach over and put his fingers right into
your food and sort of smack it up.
The second thing is he chews these big-ass nasty cigars, and I thought, `Man,
I've gone my whole life without getting addicted to any sort of nicotine. I
don't drink coffee. What am I going to do. If I do "Baadasssss!" and I have
to chew those nasty cigars and I get addicted that'll be a terrible thing.' So
I had them make me chamomile cigars. So I had to chew these nasty cigars, and
after a while, I got used to it. I was, like, `OK. This is an oral fixation
I don't need.'
But there were a lot of things, just the way my dad looks when he's about to
explode. There's a quietness that's right before the storm when he's looking
you right in your eyes and you know you better get out of there quick, and I
know I have that same kind of temper. There are things that I was able to do
that I realized, `Well, I playing my dad,' but then I was, `Wait a minute.
This is not far from me.'
GROSS: I understand why your father had such a hard time raising money for
"Sweet Sweetback." It was ahead of its time, you know, politically and
racially, but why did you have trouble making money for your film--I mean,
raising money for your film?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. This is a good question. Well, you know,
"Baadasssss!" unlike a lot of just American films doesn't fall into the
category so easily as to whether it's a comedy or a drama, and, you know, it's
got--and a lot of the notes we sent out when we sent it around to the studios
said that. They said, the first studio basically said, `Look, we think that
"Baadasssss!" is going to appeal to the festival crowd.' And they were pretty
clear about it, and they said, `Mostly if you have complex characters, it's
better to do those characters white because the audience finds them better.'
Now what do I mean by that? You don't often see a movie like "A Beautiful
Mind" with people of color. You don't see "Lost in Translation" with people
of color. You don't see "Good Will Hunting" with people of color. So they
sort of encouraged me to say, `Can you make this film more like a "Boogie
Nights" and do it with white folks?' and they said, `Well, that's part of the
crew but it's not the whole store.' Oh, and every studio said, `You got to
make Melvin Van Peebles more likeable. We're not going to like him in
"Baadasssss!"' I said, `Well, you know, this is who the guy is.' And the one
directive I got was that I didn't have to make him too nice, that I could play
him as he was.
And, in fact, I had no intention of playing him initially. So when that came
back and I realized, `OK. I'm not going to get the money to do this thing the
big way, I'm going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.' I made "New Jack
City" in 36 days, "Panther" and "Posse" in about 47 days. I had to make
"Baadasssss!" in 18 days, not unlike my dad who without the benefits of
digital technology made "Sweetback" in 19 days.
GROSS: Mario Van Peebles wrote, directed and stars in the new film
"Baadasssss!" We'll talk more on the second-half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, creating New Jack cops for "New Jack City." We talk with
Mario Van Peebles about his films and growing up in a biracial family. And
film critic David Edelstein reviews "Spider-Man 2."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mario Van Peebles. He
wrote and directed the new film "Baadasssss!," about the making of "Sweet
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the 1971 low-budget action film whose success
led the way for black action films like "Shaft" and "Superfly." "Sweetback"
was written and directed by Mario's father, Melvin Van Peebles, who also
starred in it. Mario plays his father in "Baadasssss!"
Now your father's film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," was dedicated to,
quote, "all of the black brothers and sisters who have had enough of the man."
What did `the man' mean to you when you were 12?
Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES: The man! What did the man--you've got to say it the
right way, Terry. You can't say, `What did the man mean to you?' Terry,
you've got to say it like this--throw in a little Ebonics, baby. `What did
the man mean to ya?!' OK. OK. What the man meant...
GROSS: Thanks for the line reading.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: There you go. The man was the oppressor, you know. It's
like when they asked the Panthers, you know, `Are you racist?' and the
Panthers said, `No, you can't fight oppression with oppression. You can't
fight racism with racism. We're anti-oppression. We're
anti'--subtextually--`the man.' The man is the oppressor, the Uncle Charlie,
the guy pulling the strings. The man is the one that benefits from the war.
The man is the one that sends us to die for oil. The man is the one that's
saying, `You can't do it.' The man is the status quo.
Did I understand that at 12? Probably not. I think I got some concept of it,
but because I think also, the man is not necessarily racial in that the man is
not necessarily white, you know, per se, or black. And the crew was
multiracial, so that those lines were pretty blurred, and my family's
multiracial. So I don't know that I understood the concept, but the man is
still alive and well in 2004, believe me. I know, because I couldn't get my
funding from him. But when I direct `Revenge of the Ninja Bimbos Meets
Charlie's Angels IV,' once again, I'll be working for the man.
GROSS: The man is going to want to fund that one.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: That one, they'll want to fund.
GROSS: Now your mother's white, as you mentioned.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I can use my mother as a reflector board. I sit her in my
lap, across my lap, and I can get, you know, a nice tan under my chin.
GROSS: How did she feel about the whole, like, black power era, which, you
know, your father was part of? You could have been part of it. She would not
have been part of it.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: How did I feel? Well, the thing was this...
GROSS: How did she feel about it? How did she feel about it?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. Well, I think...
GROSS: And I'm wondering if it like...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: OK, look...
GROSS: ...divided you from each other at all?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. Well, first of all, you have to understand, go back
to my sort of radical Addams Family-ish family, myself, OK?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: My mother's mother, very hip lady, white lady, obviously,
sued the school system in Virginia because her kids were not being allowed to
go to school with Latino kids, black kids and Jewish kids, and saying that, in
doing so, the school system was denying them a full cultural perspective to
their education. They won the case. So the KKK burnt a cross on my white
grandmother's lawn and called her up and said, `We hope your daughters marry
niggers.' And my grandmother said, `Thank you, so do we.' So I have radical
white folk--my grandfather, my mother's father, taught at Harvard and Yale,
was German--left Hitler's Germany, thought Hitler was a nut, left Germany and
started working for Truman and went to war to fight against the Nazis.
And so on my other side, on my black side, my grandfather, my black
grandfather, taught himself to read. I remember my granddad was one of those
reading--my black granddad was one of those readers that, you know, whispers
when he reads, you know--(whispers), you know what I mean?
GROSS: Yeah, I got it.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: You got a--because he learned to read when he was 14 years
old, became a landowner, and took my dad, against my dad's mother's wishes,
with him to the local grocery store, pulled off all the Wonder Bread on the
shelves and stomped on it in the store, and the guy said, `What the hell are
you doing?' And my granddad said, `Look, Wonder Bread has refused to hire
drivers of color, even in black neighborhoods, and until they do, they're not
going to sell another loaf of bread in any of these stores.' And my granddad
and his friends broke the union. So my dad early on started to see that one
person could make a difference, and that sort of led to him making a
difference. In whatever business you're in, you can make a difference.
So I had radical doers, activists on both sides, and they were pretty cool.
Actually, it was my black grandmother that was more uptight about anything.
I'm told that since I was born in Mexico and they for some reason decided to
name me Mario--my family has an M fixation. We're all M's. My sister's Megan
and I'm Mario. Anyway, I'm born in Mexico. And my dad always gets a kick out
of telling me that--since mom was there and she's blonde and he's black, that
the Mexicans all lined up to see what I would look like, to see if I'd be
striped or polka-dotted or checkered. And when I looked like your average
Mexican kid, they all went, `Oh,' you know, and that was it.
No. You know, what happened was--I think, you know, as we've seen, the black
power movement led the way for the women's movement and for the gay movement,
that it was not black power at the expense of any other power. The Black
Panthers, who were portrayed as hostile and anti-white, often had big white
GROSS: Your parents separated when you were about three, and you lived with
your mother. Did your mother and your father expose you to different parts of
the counterculture of the period?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Absolutely. Mom knew the drummer in The Grateful Dead.
She was the `I'm with the band' mom. She took us surfing, and she'd smoke her
little pot and listen to her rock 'n' roll and took me to the Fillmore West,
where I would hear Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane and Santana and
Hendrix, all on one set. Now today, they'd be fragmented into Latino, radio
or soul or--you know, but then it was all speaking to the politics of the
time. And then I hung out with my dad and he knew some of the Panthers and,
you know, people that were making changes on the black power front. He knew
Bill Cosby. He took me to Cosby's house. I remember swimming at Cosby's
house and thinking, `Man, one day, I'm going to have a pool like this.' To
this day, I don't. My pool is a glorified bathtub. And, you know, but just
seeing a whole different life--so they exposed us to a lot. We went to
Morocco. We went to France. I speak a little French and I speak--and, like
most black folks, I'm bilingual. I can speak a little Ebonics and I can speak
to--you know, I can be on the Terry Gross show.
But what I think is interesting, what they did do and what my dad did do,
which is very important, was show me that you could know who you were, keep
your roots, and yet make real differences in this country.
GROSS: Now the first film you directed was "New Jack City," and it was in
'90 or '91, and the cops were the good guys in that movie, you know, and their
job in that movie was to get a drug dealer who was really dangerous to the
community. It's a real kind of change from your father's film in which, you
know, the cops are clearly the man.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Right. That's correct. And what I wanted in "New Jack
City" was--when I got the script, it read like a black "Scarface," but I
thought, you know, crack is a killer in the black community to this day, and
although we don't grow poppy fields, we don't have gun manufacturing plants in
the 'hood, these things seem to find themselves in massive quantities on a
daily basis into the poor communities. And so I thought I wanted to change
the structure from being sort of a black "Scarface" to more sort of an
"Untouchables," in that "Untouchables," the De Niro character was still the
powerful, sort of sexy, empowered gangster, but against Sean Connery and Andy
Garcia and Kevin Costner.
If you wanted folks to say `no' to the crack phenomenon, `no' to the negative
side, you had to have something positive or positive role models to say `yes'
to. So I had a "New Jack" gangster, I needed "New Jack" cops. Now it wasn't
so much that the cops in "Sweetback" were the bad guys alone. They were, but
it didn't mean that all cops were bad and it didn't mean that all white people
were bad, because remember at the end of "Sweetback," it's the white guy that
helps Sweetback escape by changing clothes with him. And I understood that.
And what was interesting about--in "New Jack City," I also understood that in
action films, to this day, but really then in 1991 when I made "New Jack,"
they play the black guy as the police commissioner. He's usually got a
receding hairline and a big belly, and he says, `Bring it in by the book or
I'm gonna have your ass.'
Now you've seen every black actor, fine black actors, play that role. And so
what they're doing is--see, what Hollywood is doing is a little trick, see.
They say, `Well, we're not racist because we're putting a black guy in a
position of power and a position of authority,' but he's not sexy, he's not in
the front line. He doesn't have his shirt unbuttoned. He's not going to get
the girl and he's not going to shoot his gun. And that's where you want to be
in an action movie. You don't want to be in the damn police commissioner's
office, but that's the role we get.
So the other producers came to me, who were black guys, and now we had the
power with our little $9 million, $8 million film--whatever--and they said,
`Let's flip it. What if we flipped it and we put the white guy in as the
police commissioner and we had him say to the black cop, "Bring it in by the
book or I'll have your tail"?' And we laughed and I went home and I thought
about it and I came back the next day and I said, `You know what? That's
doing unto them cinematically as they've done unto us, and I'm not going to do
that. Let's get--you know, for our "New Jack" cops, let's get Russell Wong,
who's this great-looking, very, you know, distinguished Asian cat. Let's get
Judd Nelson, who's Jewish, and let's get Ice-T, and they'll be our "New Jack"
cops.' And you know what? I played the police commissioner and I was the one
that wound up saying, `Bring it in by the book or I'll'--you know, famous
So what I wanted to do there was that there were a lot of--you know, a lot of
the establishment, not just a few, but a lot of the establishment understands
that what the drugs did was medicate the inner cities. When you're medicated,
you don't vote, you don't get involved, you don't--you know, and so it
medicated the militancy of the late '60s and '70s. They couldn't figure out
how to stop that militancy. So when you're on drugs, you're cracked out. And
so to some extent, there are cops who look at the 'hoods, the ghettos, as a
self-cleaning oven, so why bother? As long as they're shooting themselves and
they're getting high, you can see it--Terry, you can see it in Detroit, you
can see it in Philly, you can get drugs in Chicago and LA. There's always
that inner city where they bring the drugs to, and they let these people
medicate and shoot each other.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: And I wanted to show that, so these cops were the
exception. These were the--well, not the exception. There are a lot of great
cops, and I played many a cop in my career, but I wanted these cops to be "New
Jack" cops, so it was a different spin on what my dad did, but I think in its
own way very relevant.
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter, director and actor Mario Van Peebles.
Here's a scene from "New Jack City." Mario Van Peebles is a cop trying to
recruit an ex-cop, played by Ice-T. Ice-T is resisting the idea of joining
this new undercover team. He's always preferred to work alone.
(Soundbite of "New Jack City")
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I've been authorized to set up an independent drug fighting
unit, and I'm picking you, got it?
ICE-T: Why me?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: What do you mean why you, man? You're from the
neighborhood. I can trust you and I know you give a (censored).
ICE-T: So what's the catch?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: There's no catch, man. What do you got to say that?
ICE-T: Because I know your ass, Stone.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Freddie(ph) here goes with you.
ICE-T: This big biscuit head, looking...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, listen up, Scotty. It's not going
to be another one of your wild-ass solo acts, man. Now Freddie is the only
cop I could find crazy enough to even team up with you. This is my shot, and
you (censored) up, it's all on me.
ICE-T: I want to thank you a lot, man, because you know I want to get back in
this war. This guy, man...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: So you in or out?
ICE-T: I'm in, man, all right?
GROSS: We'll talk more with Mario Van Peebles after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter, director and actor Mario Van Peebles. In
his new film "Baadasssss!" he stars as his father, actor, writer and director
Melvin Van Peebles. "Baadasssss!" is about the making of Melvin's 1971 movie
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song."
OK. So tell me this. You know, you come of age; like, your mother's a kind
of--sounds like really quite the hippie, really. Your father's, like, into,
like, the black power movement and multiculturalism. They're both real
independent thinkers, and it sounds like they're both, you know,
non-materialistic. It's about larger issues...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Right, absolutely.
GROSS: ...and ethics and the movement...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...and all that stuff. And then you make your first film in the early
'90s, "New Jack City," and your main audience--I mean, not main--you had quite
a big audience, but a lot of the most excited audience for that film is, you
know, people in hip-hop culture, and I think it's fair to say hip-hop culture
is, in a lot of ways, a really materialistic culture.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Absolutely. And it's like capitalism on crack. I mean,
`Not only do I have gold in my wallet and gold in my ring, I'm going to have
gold in my teeth. I want gold everywhere!' But that's what poor folks do.
When they've been convinced that it's not about who you are, it's about what
you have, and you've got to decolonize that mind. And so the hero--when you
look at Ice-T's apartment, just subtextually, Ice-T's apartment had books in
it and sunlight and pictures of thinkers, of intellectuals, Garvey and Malcolm
and Maya Angelou. And Nino Brown's place, the gangster, had gold and dead
stuff. There was no life, no plants, no sunlight.
So even subtextually, I'm saying something with that and about that. And what
was cool about it--I mean, when we went to screen "Baadasssss!" in DC, this
one kid stood up and said, `I love "Baadasssss!" but I want to also thank you
for "New Jack City," because after I saw "New Jack City," I didn't want to
touch drugs at all.' That was the goal, was to reach beyond the choir and
reach those kids that go to see those movies and say, `How can I get a message
to them?,' you know? And so you've got to figure out what you want to say and
then how to hide it. And so buried in there in "New Jack City," in all the
glamour, in all that stuff, there's a very heavy anti-drug message. There's
also a very heavy--in a way, if you look at the cops, from Ice-T to Judd
Nelson to Russell, a non-materialistic message, but--that these are all other
things that you feel. You can't be didactic about it.
GROSS: I always found it interesting that you cast Ice-T as one of the
undercover cops, because, you know, he was famous as being, you know, like the
prototype of the gangster rapper. He had some records that were very
anti-cop, very angry at cops, not kind of making distinctions between good
cops and bad cops. And so now he's playing an undercover cop, and an actor
has to have some empathy for their character. And I always wondered if that
changed him in any way. What do you think?
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Well, I think you have to understand, again, his position,
and that is when I went to Ice-T's concert...
GROSS: Well, I should mention he went on to play a cop all the time in "Law &
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Right. Ice-T initially wanted to play the gangster, too,
and Wesley was going to play the cop and I wanted them to flip it, OK? But
Ice-T, when I went to his concert, had this thing where he would say, `All
right, everyone up in here who's a drug dealer, a gangster, raise your hand,'
so a lot of kids think it's real cool, so they all raise their hand. He said,
`All right, every one of you with your hands up, if you've never been shot at,
put your hands down. If you've been shot at, put your hands down,' so they
put their hands down. `If you know anyone who's lived to be over 40, being a
drug dealer, you know, keep your hands up. If you don't, put your hands
down.' More hands go down. He goes, `If you know anyone who's done what
you're doing and never been in jail, you know, put your hands down.' More
hands--by the end, there's no hands up. And he said, `That's right, so F the
drug dealer.' I can't say it on the air, but that's what he...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: So when you saw that, that he came at it through a whole
cool way and said, `The drug dealer is poisoning you. The drug dealer is not
to be admired.' He came at it as a peer, having a cool stance. You see, what
happened was that, you know, the hip-hoppers of today inherited the bravado of
the Black Panther movement, the Panthers, the Malcolms, the bravado of the
Melvin Van Peebles as the stance without the political ideology to
substantiate it. So they're lost.
GROSS: Well, here's something else I'm wondering.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: This is a generation...
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: ...of voluntary slaves that are saying, `Well, if I learn
to speak English, I'm trying to be white.' No, you've got to learn how to
speak English to get a job. You know, it's like what Cosby was saying.
You've got to be bilingual. I'm not suggesting--well, that one was co--I'm
saying growing up with my dad was like growing up, if you're a woman, and you
grow up with Margaret Thatcher as your mother; whether you agree with Mommy's
politics or not, whether you agree with her politics, it would be very hard
for a man to convince you that a woman could have no place in the old-boy
network of politics. Growing up with my dad, who did speak French, who did
speak Dutch, who was one of the first black officers in the Air Force, was
never on drugs, was never in jail, didn't play basketball and didn't rap, was
liberating, because I thought it's all possible, and that was the biggest
gift, was that I saw the possibilities of what one could to.
GROSS: Well, Mario Van Peebles, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I love talking with you and would, you know, do it anytime.
Green eggs and ham, anywhere, on a boat, on a moat, in Philly, wherever.
GROSS: Mario Van Peebles wrote, directed and stars in the new film
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Spider-Man 2." This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The much-anticipated sequel to "Spider-Man" opened this week. Directed again
by Sam Raimi, "Spider-Man 2" continues the story of Peter Parker, bitten by a
mutant spider and transformed into a soaring, Web-spinning superhero. Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
A lot of us have trouble reconciling our jobs and our personal lives, but it's
particularly rough if you happen to be a masked superhero. First, there's
that business about never being in the same place at the same time. That's
hard. Then there's that old Pirandello conundrum: Is Bruce Wayne pretending
to be Batman, or is it Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne? Some superheroes
never get it straight. At least Bruce has big bucks, which means his butler
can run interference. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is desperately poor,
he's lovelorn, and he's almost friendless. And when he pulls on that stretchy
Spider-Man suit, the tabloids make him out to be the bad guy. This kid is so
mixed up, it's no wonder neither side of him, human or superheroic, functions
All these things were laid out in the original "Spider-Man" of 2002, but
they're front and center in the sequel, titled "Spider-Man 2." The first one
was pretty good. This one's terrific. The director, Sam Raimi again, seems
more in control of the disparate elements. The effects are woven more tightly
into the human drama. The bad guy is cooler. And the love story is a few
notches up from adolescent infatuation. But it's the tone that's really
striking. It's dark, tortured, intimate, impassioned. It's a comic book
spectacle in which the primary struggle happens behind the mask.
How dark is dark? Well, the first 90 minutes are a big downer, what with
Peter, played again by Tobey Maguire, never catching a break. His romance
with the actress M.J., played by Kirsten Dunst, has fizzled, and neither knows
what to do. His best friend Harry, played by James Franco, has sworn
vengeance against Spider-Man. He begs to keep a pizza delivery boy job but
loses it for not being speedy enough.
And things are no happier on the superhero front. In the first film, his
discovery that his body could suddenly shoot white webby stuff was scary, but
also exciting. Now he discovers that once in a while, when there's too much
on his mind, that webby stuff won't jet out. There's more at stake than male
self-esteem. A couple of 30-story plunges to the street are enough to give
even the most Olympian superheroic athlete performance anxiety. The movie's
villain, Dr. Otto Octavias, is another overgrown adolescent. He's played
by the great Alfred Molina, a baby bull of a man, kind of dainty and soulful
but apt to get steamed when things don't go his way. After achieving nuclear
fusion in his lab, he ends up in the thrall of four giant nano-chip-driven
tentacles that bash through walls and hiss in his ear like the aliens in
There's an odd disjunction that fits with the movie's theme. In the middle of
those waving tentacles is a real guy with a beer belly hanging out. Doc Ock
might be a joke if Raimi weren't so good at scaring the wits out of you.
(Soundbite of "Spider-Man 2")
Mr. ALFRED MOLINA (As Dr. Otto Octavias): Peter Parker...
Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (As Peter Parker): What do you want?
Mr. MOLINA (As Dr. Otto Octavias): I want you to find your friend,
Spider-Man. Tell him to meet me at the West Side Tower(ph) at 3:00.
Mr. MAGUIRE (As Peter Parker): I don't know where he is.
Mr. MOLINA (As Dr. Otto Octavias): Find him or I'll peel the flesh off her
EDELSTEIN: That's the cue for Spider-Man to be Spider-Man again and it's not
a letdown. Well, there's still only a tenuous link between Tobey Maguire and
that digitized computer-game little guy that hurtles along those
computer-generated avenues. But if the action is unreal, it's also rock 'em,
sock 'em. It spins your head. It blasts your ears. It totally envelops you.
It's the closest thing to a virtual-reality comic book you can get without a
helmet. The climax isn't the big battle, though. It's Spidey and M.J, high
above the city, having their moment at last. It's hard to overpraise Maguire
here, that light, gentle, slightly hoarse voice with just a touch of
femininity. It's no wonder that almost every woman alive wants to eat him up.
Can this sweet kid reconcile himself to his inner superhero and can the movie
finally get beyond the Sturm und Drang? I'll tell you only that Spidey's
final swing is like a Gene Kelly happy dance. "Spider-Man 2" has an ecstatic
emotional arc. For all the computer simulations, the movie breathes.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by singer and guitarist
Jackie Paris. He died in June at the age of 79 of bone cancer. He recorded
with Charles Mingus. Lenny Bruce was a fan. He was the first to sing the
lyrics to "Round Midnight." This is from Jackie Paris' final album, "The
Intimate Jackie Paris," which was recorded in 1999.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. JACKIE PARIS: (Singing) Love is funny or it's sad or it's quiet or it's
mad. It's a good thing or it's bad, but beautiful, beautiful to take a
chance. And if you fall, you fall, and I'm certain I wouldn't mind at all.
Love is tearful or it's gay. It's a problem or it's play. It's a heartache
either way, but beautiful. And I'm thinking if you were mine, I'd never let
you go, and that would be but beautiful, I know. Love is tearful or it's gay.
It's a problem...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.