In the Name of the Father; Actor-Director Melvin Van Peebles Fought Hollywood and Inspired Black Audiences, as Well as His Son Mario, Who Plays Him like a 'Baadasssss!'
Samuels, Allison, Newsweek
Byline: Allison Samuels
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. …