Mario Van Peebles Talks We The Party, American Battleship, and Panther Blu-ray
April 6, 2012
An actor who followed in his father’s (Melvin Van Peebles) footsteps and has been behind the camera for years as a director, Mario Van Peebles has a new film coming out where not only parents can take their kids, but the kids and teenagers themselves can walk out feeling that a little bit of them are in the film.
‘We The Party,’ which has a host of newcomers, including his son Mandela in a lead role, is a colorful, cutting-edge comedy set in an ethnically diverse Los Angeles high school during America’s first black president. The film focuses on five friends as they deal with romance, money, prom, college, sex, bullies, facebook, fitting in, standing out, and finding themselves.
For Mario Van Peebles, who’s directing films include ‘New Jack City,’ ‘Posse,’ ‘Panther,’ ‘BAADASSSS!,’ and most recently, ‘All Things Fall Apart’ with 50 Cent, this film presented something special that his other films didn’t have.
In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Van Peebles talks about the genesis of getting involved with ‘We The Party,’ working with sons, his acting film ‘American Battleship,’ and why ‘Panther’ is one of the hardest films to find on video.
MARIO VAN PEEBLES: When I did “We The Party” I was workin’ on something else, and I wasn’t gonna do this. I have five teenagers, and they were bugging me to go to these all-ages clubs. I was like, “Hell no, y’all can’t go to those all-age clubs ’cause I don’t know what’s going on there. But if you want to go I’ll go with you.” They said, “No no, rolling with your dad is like bringing the cops, you roll in with 5-0 you’ll never get invited back.” Finally my son said, “why don’t you go incog-negro, not as our father but as head of our security.” So they swagged me out, skinny jeans, flat brim, the whole 9 yards. I went out as part of their entourage. I went to every underground spot with my kids. They were Dancing to New Boys, Y-G, groups I didn’t know. Of course Snoop, Godfather was still doing his thing. I was noticing hip hop was changing a little bit. Gangsta rap was becoming a little more old school, and the rap had more humor, getting smarter in different ways. Then I started hanging out with them and writing the script. Now something interesting happened to my two boys that go to public school. My boys don’t play ball well, but they’re smart and one of them is on the debate team. Other brothers are coming up to them going, “Y’all niggers are cool, y’all are kinda like Obama.” Back in the day they would have said they were trying to be white or sellouts, now they’re in essence saying, culturally, we know what gangsta looks like, thug, baller, but now we know what smart looks like. Cats out there are saying, “Being dumb ain’t the shit no more.” Smart is the new gangster. I built this script off of real stories, real things that were happening. My son was dating a girl who was a 4.0 A-student, and her father wasn’t gonna let her play with nobody that wasn’t at least a B-student. He was having to get his grades up, and she was tutoring him online at night. I’d go into his room in the morning and see her face asleep on his screen. It was like Romeo and Juliet! I thought, “this is rich, I gotta put this in the movie!” My deal with the kids was, “I’ll go out with you, no sex, no drugs, but other than that y’all do you. Talk like you talk, party like you party.” When adults aren’t around kids don’t talk PG, and that’s the same thing I did with the movie. Let’s keep it real.
The editing was impressive, because there’s so much in there. You’re trying to come up with a theme, but you’ve got music in there, comedy, and drama. How do you balance it out so it doesn’t look like a mishmash?
VAN PEEBLES: There’s a lot of texture in terms of different things happening, but part of it is listening and holding it down. We did that in “New Jack,” where Chris Rock had some funny lines, but when he started getting hooked on drugs brothers in the audience were standing up saying, “Just say no, motherfucker!” (laughs) If you can find a way to let them get on board the train emotionally, as a storyteller, then you can take ‘em for a ride, but if you don’t get ‘em on the train in the first place they ain’t gonna go for no ride. It’s a mix, it’s a balancing act, like being a chef, and sometimes you get it right or you don’t.
You have your kids involved here and entering in the acting world, but did they have to take lessons?
VAN PEEBLES: They’ve grown up around it. We did a TV show called “Mario’s Green House,” which was a reality show where we tried to build an eco-friendly house in the middle of materialistic Hollywood. We never got to green. We got to olive. (laughs) So they’ve seen my dad do it, me do it, so it’s in the blood. Does that mean they do it? No. Enjoying something is one thing, being able to make a living at it is a whole different thing.
Who wrote their words? Did they adlib?
VAN PEEBLES: I put the words together, but it was from a lot of time listening and work shopping. It had to have that real sound. There were places where I’d let them run a little bit with it. There was one scene where the sisters from the hood, The Pink Dollars, real group of sisters who’ve come up and do their thing, the white dude surfer kid comes up to them to give them flowers. As he comes over, the sister says, “What’s this nigger trying to do?” I was like, “WOW!” The use is totally flipped. I had to have that in, and the kids asked if I would change this when it went to theaters and I said, “No, we’re gonna keep it in.”
With a lack of black films presented on the big screen, were you aware what you needed to convince the powers-that-be to put this film in theaters?
VAN PEEBLES: The minute I was making a film with youth they were trying to get me to make it PG, which means I have to water everything down. I thought about the movies I like: “House Party,” “Breakfast Club,” “Fame,” “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” “Stand and Deliver”… all rated R. That shit feels real. They’re not doing those anymore. My dad always said, “If you’ve got nothing good to say, say it vaguely,” so I’m gonna say it vaguely. What my concern is when I look behind some of the films Hollywood is getting behind, and I’ve got nothing against comedy, but if they’re watching the comedies and they’re just laughing at us not with us that’s not a good ambassador to self. Ain’t nothing wrong with putting on a wig and a dress, but if they’re just supporting that kind of stuff in a popular way I don’t know what the reverberation is going to be. There’s a tendency to want to dumb our shit down, and I’m not about to do it. This is a movie for teenagers and they’re smart and they get it and they’re fast. I went independent with it, my partner and I funded it ourselves, it got this new distributor Accelerator, and if it works great, if not I’m selling tube socks, he’s selling newspapers. (laughs)
VAN PEEBLES: Someone called me up and said, “Hey, this role isn’t written for a brother or a white dude. You’re the captain of the battleship that has to save the world.” I read the script and it was pretty good! Carl Weathers plays a general in the Colin Powell mode, so you have two brothers who have a filmic history playing prominent roles in a movie that’s not a black movie! Usually they don’t put two of us in the same flick!
Is it a monster film or a “Crimson Tide” type film?
VAN PEEBLES: Little bit of that vibe, I can’t give it away, but there is a monster alien element, let’s just go with that on that.
Was this a new genre for you?
VAN PEEBLES: I’ve done some things like that. I did a movie called “Solo” where I played a Schwarzennegro type character. Shaved my head, worked out a lot. I just acted in that.
When is “Panther” going to come out on Blu-ray?
VAN PEEBLES: You’ve asked an interesting question. You can get any one of my movies, but you cannot find “Panther.”
VAN PEEBLES: I think it’s too political.
Who’s the studio behind it?
VAN PEEBLES: That was Polygram back in the day, but they got sold. We got so much stuff on that movie. They took out ads in Times Square saying, “Don’t see ‘Panther’.”
Do you have the rights to it?
VAN PEEBLES: I don’t have it, would love to just bootleg and get it out there. People come to me to say they use that in their film class. We gotta force the hand on that, if enough people ask about it.
Why is that?
VAN PEEBLES: In the inner cities, after they killed Malcolm X and Dr. King, it became clear to black folks that you can’t sing your way to freedom. If you said “by any means” or “peaceful means” they killed you both. Black folks got pissed off so you have the birth of black power. The inner cities started getting militant. The Panthers said that if they cut off the head of the snake they can stop the movement, but the Panthers had so many heads they couldn’t stop the movement. You had chapters everywhere. The way they stopped the movement was to medicate us. The heavy drugs coming into the black community, and the start of the Nino Browns, it’s let go into the hood. That theme comes up in “Panther” and it was not a welcome theme.
At the end of the day what do you want people to come away from “We The Party” with?
VAN PEEBLES: Everyone comes out with something different. You shouldn’t judge people by how you look. To really be somebody you’re measured by your wealth, or you’ve gotta be inspired by people who stood for something, like King, Malcolm, Mother Theresa, Mandela. Be careful about other people validating them through materialism and economic slavery. One girl says, “Yeah, I like to sing, but I feel like I might own the label too, so I’ll go to business school.” “I’m gonna run for office.” “Pretty is temporary, dumb is forever, who do you want on your Facebook page?” There’s some heavy stuff! (laughs) At the end of the film the lead gets his eagles feathered. He doesn’t get his recognition by driving his car and wearing a nice pinky ring. You have to stand for something.
‘We The Party’ opens on April 6.