By Allison Kugel –
Born of a revolutionary bloodline to activist filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, you could say that Mario Van Peebles was born to make films that nudge our social consciousness and encourage us to answer questions we hadn’t thought to ask. An actor, director and writer, Mario Van Peebles’ first foray into acting was playing a younger version of his father Melvin’s character, Sweetback, in the senior Van Peebles’ most notable film, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Baadasssss Song pioneered a new era of African-American cinema throughout the 1970s. It was this small role in his father’s groundbreaking film that set the stage for Mario’s life and career. He would continue to be driven to add to his father’s earlier legacy with films that push audiences out of their comfort zone and question social and societal boundaries.
One theme that run through much of Mario Van Peebles’ work is the assertion that we all have the right to be fully recognized human beings, but more provocatively, how do we react when we feel that right has been infringed upon? Some might call Van Peebles an iconoclast, coming for long cherished, yet often potentially destructive social norms and institutions, while remaining inherently likeable to his fans. The secret, he says, is in the characters he writes, directs and sometimes portrays; they are complex portraits that make us look at the gray areas of life while being entertained.
As a filmmaker, he has an endless fascination with American culture, with all of its bumps and bruises. And as he states, “America is often referred to as ‘the melting pot.’ If you take immigrants from all over the world with different beliefs and bring them together you get conflict and sparks, but from that cultural [suffuse], you also get great music and art.”
In his latest independent film, Armed, written, directed and starring Van Peebles, he plays a former U.S. Marshall who has fallen on hard times after he led his team of under-cover agents on a raid that went horribly wrong. Now, suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues, as well as a somewhat warped sense of reality, he must navigate life as a civilian while desperately trying to regain some former glory and recognition. Armed aims to portray the complexities of human nature and questions the publicly floated theory that “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.” Van Peebles’ character, Chief, was one of the good guys in his career as a U.S. Marshall. Still armed with a collection of guns, he now struggles with mental illness; a potentially combustible combination. The questions that this film asks are topical and obvious, but the conclusions are not, which is what makes Armed an interesting watch.
Allison Kugel: I’m going to lead with a comment that your character, Chief, makes at the end of your new film, Armed; “We’re all born into this world looking for love, and sometimes we settle for attention.” That statement is profound and ties into our culture’s current obsession with social media. What’s your take on that?
Mario Van Peebles: It’s understanding the ego and its need to experience itself. The ego doesn’t like being invisible. It can’t handle that, and so we need recognition on some level. Also, as pack animals we need recognition, because we need to have a designation within the pack or we don’t survive. A great white shark doesn’t need recognition, it just needs to eat (laughs). But a wolf… is it the beta wolf, is it the alpha wolf? It needs to know what its role is within the pack. Social norms and structure play a big part when you’re a pack animal. For example, if a kid can’t get recognized for being an A student, he’ll settle for being recognized as a disruptor, or the class clown, or the athlete, or even as the cutter. The bigger thing, of course, is to be loved. That’s the ultimate high. But when we can’t get that, we settle for some sort of attention. Now, with social media, people are creating these faux-lifestyle commercials that are not really them. There’s a Drake lyric where he says, “I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone.” The pictures you take, those Snapchats you take, are capturing these created or staged moments.
Allison Kugel: How do you connect that statement to the mass shootings that are happening with increased frequency?
Mario Van Peebles: The people that seem to commit them are often referred to as loners, and people that didn’t fit in; people who wanted a sense of importance that they didn’t feel. Part of it, I think, is that we have evolved rather quickly, socially speaking. I’m in New York right now, and I’m on the eighth floor. Someone above me is on the ninth floor, and someone below me is on the seventh floor. We’re not really designed to live like this, where we’re stacked up on top of each other. Cities are these artificial social constructs. Our bodies are pretty much the same as when we were in Egypt, or maybe when we were in chains. But socially we’ve evolved very quickly. As pack animals, as hunter gatherers, we do well in groups of maybe fifty, or even a hundred. Beyond that, we divide into sub-groups. We want to be in groups where everyone knows our name, where we are not nameless. When you live in a city and you suddenly are around whole groups of people who don’t know your name, you can be surrounded by folks and yet have feel very lonely and disassociated.
Allison Kugel: You’ve come up with a catch phrase, “Make America Think Again,” an obvious retort to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” What inspired it?
Mario Van Peebles: Even before [Trump] put that slogan out there, I wanted to make films that made people think. There are three loves in life: love what you do, love and enjoy the people you do it with, and love what you say with what you do. If I can make people think while they consume art, maybe they’ll think when they’re ordering their food, or when they’re picking out what car to drive, or maybe, even when they’re voting. I’m intrigued by the relationship between the art we watch and how we vote. My film will hopefully make people discern, “Oh wow! We all have some good guy and some bad guy within us.” “A good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun,” is a very reductive way of looking at the world. The reality of human beings is much more complex. I’ve always wanted to make films that make people think, so it was just natural to say, “Let’s Make America Think Again.”
Allison Kugel: Human beings are very complex. Personally speaking, I am the first to say that I’m not a good candidate to be a gun owner. I’m a very passionate person, an emotionally driven person, and I had a temper in my past. I think those of us that are in the arts tend to experience some high highs and low lows; it’s how we are able to create. But I know that because I feel things so deeply, there have been times I may not have been in the best state of mind. So, I have always said that I never want to own a gun.
Mario Van Peebles: I have never ever heard anyone say that. That is awesome that you’re aware of it, and that says a lot about where you are in your life, emotionally. But you’re able to make a good living doing what you love, as am I. To some degree, the system works for us. It’s much easier when the system works for you, to be in that emotional state to even analyze yourself on that level.
Allison Kugel: It requires having the luxury of time to get to know yourself, and to develop that consciousness…
Mario Van Peebles: And perspective, correct. You’re not just hustling hand-to-mouth, trying to feed your baby, buy pampers, and figure out how to avoid the drug dealer down the street.
Allison Kugel: I’ve heard so many people say that putting your own money into a film is the worst investment one could make. You even wrote in your director’s statement, “The golden rule is he who has the gold makes the rule. The other [golden] rule is he who uses his own gold to finance a film is a knuckle head or has the last name Van Peebles.” (Laughs) Are you in it simply for the social impact, or is this film also a business venture for you?
Mario Van Peebles: It is for me, as well as one of my sons (Mandela Van Peebles). He took the money he made from Roots, and that’s why his name is [in the credits] as Executive Producer. He liked the idea of Armed, and I think he’s going to get a pretty good return. I’ve done it before, and it is a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. I can’t think of anything better to do with it other than paying for education and travel. I don’t want more clothes. I have one hybrid car and the air conditioner is broken (laughs). I’m laughing, but I’m serious. I will eventually get another car. But what do I want to look back on when I’m an old fart? I want to do the movies I want to do. And like I said in my director’s statement, you can’t make Supersize Me if you’re going to take McDonald’s money. All the movies lately with casts of color, and there are some wonderful movies out now, but they’re all race-centric. My movie, Armed, is not race-centric; it has nothing to do with race, and yet it’s a multiracial cast.
Allison Kugel: I’ve noticed that you tend to sway more societal than racial with your messaging.
Mario Van Peebles: If you look at my film Baadasssss!, the same day that Baadasssss! came out, the movie Soul Plane came out. Baadasssss! is about my dad and his film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The LA Times wrote that these two movies came out on the same day; Soul Plane was made for $16 million by a big studio with a predominantly African American cast, and the premise was that black people running an airline is laughable. It’s a message of disempowerment. Baadasssss!, made for $1 million in 18 days by an independent filmmaker, says that the idea of people of all colors coming together and making a hit movie that changed the complexion of Hollywood is a possibility, and it’s a fact, and it’s a real story and a message of empowerment across color lines. I couldn’t have made that impact within the system.
Allison Kugel: You have to value your own soul to make those kinds of decisions; that has to be worth something to you. It’s hard to find sometimes in certain industries, but I have no doubt that it does exist. I’m talking to it right now.
Mario Van Peebles: Sometimes you find it in people who don’t look like you. They don’t have the same beliefs as you; they’re white, they’re black, they’re gay, straight, male, female, all of it. If you’re open to that smorgasbord of humanity and you make it a welcoming place, then you learn. And boy do you learn quickly when you’re working with people.
Allison Kugel: The first time I became aware of you was in the early nineties, with the film New Jack City, in 1991. New Jack City was a social and political commentary on the crack epidemic, and it was a very profitable film. Throughout your career, the roles you’ve played in front of the camera, and the films you’ve made, have all had social and societal messages, beyond their entertainment value. Do you ever like to take on a role or become involved with a project just for entertainment’s sake?
Mario Van Peebles: I could probably talk myself into it by saying, “Well, I could do this slant on this character, which would make it interesting.” I was in Jaws: The Revenge (1987), and I found a way to have fun with that. Part of the fun is finding other ways to enlarge the story or the experience. So, absolutely! But I find ways of making it work for myself and enriching it. That’s a lot of fun to do.
Allison Kugel: With this film, Armed, do you fear the echo chamber effect, where people that are on the left and proponents of gun control laws are going to be responsive, while people on the right who are very pro-Second Amendment aren’t going to be interested at all?
Mario Van Peebles: I think if you are absolutely committed to a position, then you will be committed to it with or without this film. If I make a documentary about [guns], then yes, that absolutely is the case. We don’t tend to learn informationally; we learn behaviorally. If you make something entertaining and you play against type it tends to grab people’s attention. People are used to seeing me playing a character that is heroic. In Armed I’m playing against type. With this character, you’re kind of waiting for him to get it together, and you’re rooting for this guy. You’re in this guy’s skin, and then when it goes sideways, you’re still right there with him. It makes you feel like, “I enjoyed being there and still wanted him to win, but I was super conflicted.” The moral of this film is, can I put myself into the skin of someone who is kind of a ticking timebomb? Good film takes you in, just like good religion takes you in. Bad religion is exclusionary and says, “You can’t come in because you’re different. You mentioned New Jack City. It’s the same thing with Chris Rock’s character in New Jack City. How many gangster films make the crime seem victimless? In New Jack City, it’s not just the good cops and the villains or gangsters. You also have Chris Rock, who’s a victim of the crack epidemic. When audiences watched “the victim” in that film, I had kids in the first screening of New Jack City stand up and yell at the screen, “Just Say No Motherf*cker!” When you get kids to react against drugs in a gangster movie, wow! With this new film, Armed, I can try to get people inside the head of a guy who loves to be recognized, who would settle for attention, and who realizes he might not be a good candidate to be a gun owner.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you are on this earth to learn, and what are you here to teach?
Mario Van Peebles: That’s a great question. For my birthday, I had my kids record answers to some questions I asked them. I gave them six questions and that was one of them. I guess I want to stay old enough to be a great teacher and remain young enough to be a badass dude. I always want to be okay with saying, “I don’t know.” If you fill a glass with water, you can’t put milk in it because it’s already filled up with water. You’ve got to be willing to not be full to take new things in.
Allison Kugel: Which goes back to our earlier conversation about remaining open to information that may not fit your current narrative…
Mario Van Peebles: That’s why I always want to remain open to learning new things. If the world needed green, I think I would try to find a way to bring in some green. If the world needed more yellow, then I would try to find that. Each of my kids is different and it has made me be a different dad to each one of them. It’s been interesting to learn that parenting is not one size fits all. Right now, the world needs an elevated consciousness and a sense of the we. My kids recently asked me, “You mean if all the kids all over the world refused to fight, there would be no more war? And if they listened to us there’d be no more prejudice? It would stop in one generation?” Sometimes what I’m here to learn, I learn through my kids. The basis of all of this is to just be kind. Be kind to the planet, be kind to yourself, be kind to your neighbor. It sounds corny, but that’s at the essence of it all.