Let’s do some time-traveling, shall we? The year is 1971: On movie screens across America, a budding thespian named Mario Van Peebles can be seen, buck naked, engaging in disturbingly gritty simulated sex with an older woman during the opening moments of ”Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” his father Melvin’s groundbreaking, hugely successful indie film. The tale of a taciturn stud who is radicalized after seeing police brutalize a black revolutionary, ”Sweetback” would later be recognized as the movie that launched the blaxploitation genre. Mario was all of 13 when he filmed that infamous scene (at his father’s behest, family members being cheaper than actors).
Flash forward to 2004: Mario, 47, and Melvin, 71, have just finished posing for a photo shoot and are preparing to be interviewed about ”Baadasssss!,” Mario’s new, highly engrossing film about Melvin’s struggles to make ”Sweetback.” In the more than three decades since that controversial flick made its debut, Mario has become, if not quite a Hollywood A-lister, a fairly badass triple threat as an actor (notably his Malcolm X in ”Ali”), director (”New Jack City,” ”Posse,” ”Panther”), and producer (”Judgment Day”). But in recent years, he found himself thinking more and more about his bizarre, sexually charged entry into films, and his rocky relationship with his dad.
”I had to go back and relive a lot of stuff from that period to do ‘Baadasssss!,”’ he says. ”At the time, I didn’t really know my father. He had been in Europe, and I was living in San Francisco with my mother [Maria, who’d divorced Melvin in 1963]. We had issues; he did s — – that I would never do as a father. But all my issues with him became eclipsed by this bigger event.”
That event, of course, was the massive success of ”Sweetback,” that supremely raw ghetto fable produced, written, directed by, and starring his guerrilla-auteur pops. The movie would eventually become one of the highest-grossing independent films of its day, raking in somewhere between $10 million and $15 million, despite its being rated X (”by an all white jury,” the posters proclaimed in a masterful stroke of marketing). ”Sweetback” hipped Hollywood to the notion that there was a sizable audience for realistic depictions of ghetto life. ”With movies like ‘Shaft’ and ‘Superfly,’ the studios co-opted my dad’s idea, but without the revolutionary core,” says Mario.
But it was no stoned soul picnic getting ”Sweetback” made. Despite Melvin’s track record as a successful director (his 1970 comedy ”Watermelon Man” had been a huge hit for Columbia), major studios wouldn’t touch his artistic vision — which offered a lead character who stood up to, and sometimes beat down, his white oppressors — and he wound up shooting and financing ”Sweetback” himself in just 19 days.
Now, some 30-odd years later, his son has cowritten (with Dennis Haggerty), directed, and starred as his father in ”Baadasssss!,” based on Melvin’s making-of book, ”Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Voices of Conscience.” ”When I sent the [”Baadasssss!”] script to the studios,” muses Mario, ”the reaction I got was ‘You’ve got a complex relationship between father and son and a complex antihero. You can’t do ”Good Will Hunting” for black folks.’ The next studio said, ‘Put some ”Barbershop”-type hip-hop comedy in there.’ Then the next studio said, ‘It’s too political and too sexy. It needs to be a drama or a comedy, and we can’t figure out which it is.’ And every studio, across the board, told me, ‘You’ve got to make Melvin’s character more likable.”’