Mario Van Peebles has been acting and directing for over 20 years and the 54-year-old son of trailblazing indie film icon Melvin Van Peebles shows no signs of slowing down. The director behind such modern-day classics as New Jack City, Posse and Panther has just completed two films this year. His latest movie, Redemption Road, starring Michael Clarke Duncan, is in theaters now.
BET.com spoke with Van Peebles about his latest film, Wesley Snipes’ imprisonment, the reason for the recent boom of Black stereotypes in movies and why the prospect of Zoe Saldana, the action star, is exciting.
Redemption Road touches on alcoholism, but also explores other themes, as well. As its director, what is the film's overall message?
I wanted to show a movie where there were two very different men; one who’s [an] African-American who digs country [music] and one who’s white and digs blues, and flip it on its head so they could figure out how to bridge their multiple differences. It wasn’t just the alcoholic aspect, it was [that] they had personal stuff to cross. Along the way, they find things that help them grow emotionally, individually and collectively. This is a life-affirming movie. It’s got heart.
Your dad Melvin is also in this movie and you two have collaborated numerous times. What’s it like working with him?
It’s exciting. My dad has directed me, I’ve directed things he’s written and I’ve directed him. I’m comfortable with him in different ways. We don’t always agree artistically or as 'father and son,' but we figure it out. He also knows if everybody hates the movie, they can blame me and if they love it, he can take all the credit. We have that agreement.
You also directed Wesley Snipes in the movies New Jack City and Hard Luck; what’s your take on his current incarceration for tax evasion?
I don’t know the intricacies of his tax problem but I used to tease Wesley and say, 'You know you need to let me hold some of that money because you’re making too much of it. I need to hold it for you.' But I was just joking with him. I can’t speak on the intricacies of Wesley’s case and I’d hate to get it wrong, but I’ll just say he’s a talented brother, a smart brother and I hope he figures out how to navigate it. I enjoyed working with him and would do so again anytime, anywhere.
It’s been 20 years since New Jack City. Any thoughts or reflections on the state of Black films since then?
The question is "what are we putting out now?" What Spike Lee, John Singleton and I like to do is put out some material that is entertainment and educational. It doesn’t just depict us as buffooning and clowning. We were doing Malcolm X, Boyz In The Hood, Rosewood, New Jack City, Posse and Panther. Those were fuller depictions [of Black life] — you had love stories; movies like Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones portrayed us more three-dimensional[ly]. When I look back 20 years ago, it’s almost [like] looking back at a "Golden Age." The tragedy is that we don’t have the spread [of films] we used to have.
Even with exceptions, like The Help, Jumping The Broom and Takers, do you believe that the overall trend and themes of our films are going in another direction?
Look, Hollywood is going to always finance the lowest common denominator stuff that makes us look stupid if they have a choice. Hollywood is not Black or white; it’s green. But when that green can support an image that’s not an empowering one, they will tend to support it rather than another that makes us think. We have to pay attention. Things we do in media affects generations to come. There’s nothing wrong with having our hot ghetto mess stories or our Dumb and Dumbers, but the problem is, there’s not enough of the variety. The dominant culture always gets represented in all types of movies, but now the main thrust of what we’re getting is 'buffooning and clowning.' Let me put it this way — if all you eat is Cheetos, you’re gonna die. If you just watch Cheetos, your soul will die.
As a filmmaker, when did you notice our films shift and really embrace this trend?
I was driving down the street one day with my daughter and she was like, “Daddy, look at this!” and we saw billboards of Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House — a big, fat "sister" serving up sass. A couple of blocks later you had Eddie Murphy in Norbit. You go a little further, you got Tyler Perry in Madea. My daughter was like, “What the hell is going on?” Hollywood is making a lot more [movies] of Black men wearing dresses and wigs and it’s not the quality that Spike, John and I were raising the bar to. That’s why I’m so happy to see Zoe Saldana in Colombiana. Bring it on, baby!
Redemption Road is playing in theaters in select cities now.
(Photo: Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup)