Being the son of Melvin Van Peebles, known as the Godfather of Modern Black Cinema, Mario Van Peebles came by his talent honestly and has amassed an impressive body of work, establishing himself both as a successful actor and an important contributor to the new generation of black filmmakers.
His first film, “New Jack City,” a small budget movie about drug abuse in the New York City ghetto, received rave reviews and was a big commercial success, establishing his reputation as a fine filmmaker. He continued making films such as “Posse,” and “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass,” which was about his father, and acting in films such as “Jaws: The Revenge,” “Ali (Malcolm X),” and “Multiple Sarcasms.” He did guest appearances on such hit television shows as “Law & Order,” “Damages,” “L.A. Law,” and the long-running soap, “All My Children.”
His latest film, “We The Party,” is a compelling coming-of-age story that takes us deep inside the life and times of today’s African-American teenagers. That said, the issues covered in this beautifully produced movie are quite universal, ranging from gang bangers, bullying, love, loss of virginity, and the influence music and art have on forming their values and goals.
Van Peebles, along with his son Mandela, recently sat down for an interview with a select group of journalists and the following has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
Was there a specific event in your life that motivated you to write “We The Party?”
Peebles: There was. It was called my kids getting older and leaving the house (laughter). I never counted on how much I love being a dad. That was something that tripped me up. I’m going to miss them. My son will be going to college soon. So I bought two years with my kids by making this film.
How did the story evolve?
Peebles: I was trying to write a script. My kids were upstairs playing music and dancing. They started asking if they could go to these clubs and I said, “Clubs?” We use to go to parties, not clubs!” “Hell no. You’re not going to any clubs without me!” So then I said to two-slap (referring to his son Mandela who stars in the film), I call him two-slap because all the other kids listen to me, but he likes to negotiate. Tell them (referring to the journalists) what happened.
Mandela: Me and my other siblings had a little pow wow on how we were going to get to go to these clubs. We knew dad said no, but I was sure we could work out a way. We discussed sneaking out but then realized that we needed a ride. Dad looks kind of young and is in good shape so we thought we could just give him a hoodie and let him go in the back and do his thing (laughter).
Peebles: I kinda’ went like is there a bouncer who’s part of the entourage? So I ventured out in L.A. “incogNegro” (laughter) – underground with my kids and it was crazy. Have you ever been to one of these teenage clubs? It looked like it was safe sex on the dance floor and it’s not even that safe (laughter). You have to have a body condom to go to these spots. So my deal was, you guys go out as you are and talk like you really talk. As long as I know you’re safe, we’re okay. Stuff happened that I couldn’t believe. I loved mixing it up with them and really started to listen and realized that now was the time to make this movie, and make it real.
Did you try to get studio financing?
Peebles: When I went to Hollywood, I couldn’t get the funding. I have a buddy who runs with me a lot. His name is Michael (Cohen – co producer) and I told him about the script. We were running on the beach one day and saw a sea gull all tied up in a fishing line and it was dying. We untied the line and the sea gull flew away so we started a company called Saving The Seagull and the first movie we funded was “We The Party.” Actually, I couldn’t have made “We The Party” the way I wanted to if I had taken studio money, which would have meant making a different version and sanitizing it. This is a perfect case of putting your money where your mouth is.
Do you think the “R” rating will hurt or help the movie?
Peebles: We thought about this a lot and had a big family debate. My one daughter said, “If it’s “R,” the kids are going to sneak in because they want to see it, but you won’t get the ticket count.” My other kids said, “But if it’s not real, they’re not going to come in the first place.” So it was a big debate. The bottom line was there were scenes in the movie that I really didn’t want to take out like the scene with the sisters from the hood (Pink Dollaz) and the blonde dude who likes one of them. In one scene he brings her flowers and the other sister says, “What’s this Nigger trying to do?” And I thought, oh wow! In my generation, we don’t use the “N” word. That’s a sacred cow. This generation, forget it. It’s like Ice-T said when we did “New Jack City.” “You either make a movie of how things are or how you want them to be.”
How did you test the film with young people and what was their reaction?
Peebles: We didn’t take it to focus groups because the cool kids don’t go to those big Hollywood paid focus groups. You get the five kids who want to be in the film club or want to be the next Siskel and Ebert. So we went to the schools to show the movie. At first the teachers were concerned about the language but after they watched it, they brought their classes in to see the film. We knew we had something. The kids were like, “Yo, don’t change a word – this is us. This is how we talk,” and they recognized everyone and everything. The little sisters liked that the girl was brown skin and pretty, and she said, “Yes I want to sing, but I’m also smart enough to own the record label.” Another girl said that she liked the line, “pretty is temporary, dumb is forever.”
Some of these kids understand that smart is the new game plan – not to just play ball, but to own the team like Magic (Johnson), not to just rap, but own the label like Diddy, (Sean John Combs a.k.a. Puff Daddy) and maybe it’s time to not just buy the clothes, or the sneakers, but to own the freakin’ label. So we have some kids waking up and thinking like entrepreneurs. We’ve got them understanding that if you leave the schoolhouse, you’ll probably be welcomed at the jailhouse.
My oldest daughter Maya, who plays Michelle, is at Howard University and it pretty much looks like a girls’ school. Makes me want to go back to school (laughter).
Seriously, a lot of the brothers are not getting educated so when you have a movie that sells being a student, especially for a black boy, that’s pretty big because at the core of this movie, you have a black boy having to get his GPA up.
How do think the film counteracts messages kids are getting on materialism?
Peebles: Every song out there is about how much I got. We’ve made your sense of self-dependency on something we sell you. So that’s the conversation I’ve had with my kids and part of the beauty of having kids is when you try to explain complex concepts to them, you have to break it down and make it plain. I realized I could make things plain and make them understood. For example, in the film, as Dr. Sutton, I tell my class that you can’t sell Mother Teresa breast implants; you can’t sell Dr. King materialism; and you can’t sell Gandhi a Cadillac because he wouldn’t want it and yet we respect those people the most – not because of what they owned, but for what they lived for and were willing to die for.
How has the film been received by adults?
Peebles: The adults get the messaging. They get the stuff about materialism; they get the stuff about green. Even the AIDS Foundation came in because they liked when the sister, referring to giving up her virginity, said, “If we do it, it’s going to be safe – it’s not going to be now, and it’s going to be special.” The AIDS Foundation bought blocks of tickets to “We The Party” to get kids tested. When you get advocacy groups getting on board, and you get the kids embracing it, you might get that perfect storm, but we could miss it.
Aren’t you optimistic about the film’s success?
Peebles: I’m not going to lie. We don’t have big Hollywood money on this. Hollywood right now is supporting films that are good, but sometimes it’s more about guys dressing up in dresses and wigs than it is about showing real black kids. The truth is that on the first weekend we release the film, if folks don’t go see it, because we’re an independent film, we don’t get out second weekend. If the movie does well, then we would talk about foreign strategy. We’re getting all this love on the Facebook page from kids from as far away as Australia, France, and parts of Africa.
How did you come up with that incredible contemporary musical score?
Peebles: When I began to cast the movie, I went to my teen constituency and said, “Who do we need to get?” They suggested The New Boyz, Snoop Dogg, the Latino kid from Manuto, and voices from Hannah Montana. Mandela and Patrick (Cage II plays Chowder) said, “You gotta’ get this song in the movie called “Cat Daddy” by Rej3ctz. The social network played a big part for us as the song wasn’t even a single yet and now, thanks to the social network, it’s at about 66 million views on YouTube.
How would you like this film to impact on future generations?
Peebles: What I’m hoping is that 20 years from now some kid wearing a hoody will say, ‘Damn, I want to be a teacher like Dr. Sutton or I want to be a student or maybe I want to stay in school.
What is your reaction to the Trayvon Martin tragedy and all the talk about the hoodies?
Peebles: My heart goes out to brother Trayvon Martin’s family and hopefully we will see some justice. The timing is interesting as one of our characters, C.C., played by YG, wears a hoody and you might think he’s the one who stole the money. He reveals himself with a song called “Truth.” It shows that he’s a deep person inside and it doesn’t matter what you wear. You force an audience to think. Thinking when you watch art is dangerous because if you think when you’re watching a movie, the next thing you know you’ll be thinking when you vote. So that’s why in totalitarian governments the first thing they do is to try to shrink the art because they don’t want the populace thinking.
Do you have a favorite quote?
Peebles: Dr. Martin Luther King said, “…Either we learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we perish together as fools.” I add to that that either we learn to live together as brothers and sisters in harmony with nature or perish together as fools.