Film is Our Family Business

The writer-director-star of Armed writes about his unconventional upbringing and becoming the filmmaker — and man — he is today.

Both my parents were very creative. My mother was into visual arts, specifically photography. My dad was an aspiring writer. When he realized that he would not be able to work in film here in the United States because the industry in the late ’50s was totally dominated by white males – an American Apartheid – he and my mom took off to Europe.

He was 24, she was 21, and they had two small kids and not a lot of money. But they were free-spirited; there was no real script to follow. My dad got a start studying astronomy in Amsterdam, and learned a little Dutch. I slept in the closet; my sister slept in the bathroom. And then he went to France, and learned French. He became a French journalist (he interviewed Malcolm X), and started slowly to do films over there.

My cultural zeitgeist had a lot of shape and flavor and color in it, because I grew up going to see van Goghs and visiting the Parthenon. I would go to my dad’s makeshift editing room and see him actually put a film together. My mother would take pictures of us and write the articles too, and next thing I know the whole thing was in Ebony. I saw creativity bear fruit. I saw that you could have an idea and speak it, bring it into existence. Your dreams could become your thoughts, your thoughts could become your words, your words could become your actions, and your actions could create your reality. I had the sense that inspiration could be a very tangible thing which could be sustainable, which could create a livable lifestyle.

Mario Van Peebles with his mother Maria Marx and father Melvin Van Peebles, late 1950s.

I found that film was a connective tissue that could show our commonalities, versus emphasizing our differences. That good film could embrace you and be inclusive, like good religion hopefully is inclusive and brings you in. It could take you, the viewer, in, and make you understand others.

I didn’t get the whole racial thing until way later. I grew up feeling like folks had different hair color, different eye color, and that was just part of our species. Dad was dark, Mom was white, my sister had red hair. So, you know, we’ve got a little of everybody. One of the things I learned from traveling was that the world was a cultural smorgasbord. In America, there were socioeconomic divides; rich didn’t play with poor, boys didn’t play with girls. My sister and I were homeschooled, and she was my best friend. So, I learned to step over a lot of these cultural divisions in different countries, and not see them as the only choice.

When I did start to become aware of the -isms – sexism, racism, classism – I almost didn’t take that kind of crap seriously, it just seemed so small-minded. I thought it was ignorant to try to other-ize people because of race, class, sexual preference or whatever, almost like we should feel sorry for people who were denying themselves all the beauty everyone has to offer.

When I went to Columbia, the Black folks who had fought to get to this school were all at one table. The Asian people sat in their own little clique, and there was the gay clique, and the football clique. I was a clique-buster. I would go in there and pull over this Jewish person to the Black clique. My girlfriend was Jewish and French, and we would invade all the cliques. I would be outrageous; some people would laugh, and some would find it very offensive. When I sat down with all the brothers at the Black table, I said, “What is this, an ugly negro convention?” And they were like, “Oh shit, the crazy freshman didn’t just say that!” But I did. And they all laughed, except one.

Later on, a guy at the table wrote me an eloquent letter detailing how offended he was: he felt my remark was pointed at him. My remark wasn’t pointed at him and there were at least 18 people at that table, but it made me learn that I could offend people with my humor. I grew up in a family that got the joke of humanity – that we all think that we’re separate, but we’re really linked and connected – but not everyone looks at it that way. It was a big lesson. Part of life is finding your voice, and part of being a filmmaker is finding your voice, and this helped me find a more inclusive voice and way to reach people. Now, when I make a movie like Armed, I know I have to balance things out, to tell a story with people from different socioeconomic divides and racial divides and belief systems. I still have my humor, but now I make myself the butt of the joke, because I can take it.

Writer-director-star Mario Van Peebles with actor William Fichtner on the set of Armed

Once I realized there are really people out there who didn’t like someone on the basis of race, or sex, I had to take all that shit seriously. But I wasn’t going to take it to heart. Or see myself as a target, or ever let it make me bitter. I’d step over that dumb shit. I’d deal with it. I’d change it. But I wasn’t going to embody it. I wasn’t going to internalize it, because it’s dumb. It’s limiting.

My father had said that if he had it to do over again, he’d learn more about the business part of show business, and so one of the reasons I went to Columbia was to study economics and become financially literate. He and my mother told me about how Frantz Fanon wrote that the most successful colonizers left behind the schools and the churches to socialize the oppressed to the oppressors’ point of view.” Paul Robeson asked the question, If you take on the values of the people that would buy and sell and commodify you, then what have you ultimately become? So, what would an Ivy League school socialize me to?

Well, the economics I learned at this wonderful Ivy League school, though well-intended, was flawed. It taught us that the price of a wooden table was what it would cost for you to send a guy out to the forest to cut down a tree, shape the table, bring it to market, and the forces of supply and demand would determine what price you could get on the open free market. That model perpetuates the culture of the colonizers’ point of view, in which racism is right next to sexism, and is right around the corner from classism and look-ism, and is down the street from the wholesale exploitation of Mother Nature herself. That colonizer outlook never takes into account what the tree is doing for free: providing oxygen, holding down topsoil, providing animal habitat and sources of medicine – and possibly it had a spirit! Because the colonizers don’t appreciate what nature does, that’s why we have now destroyed 52 percent of the world’s wildlife, just since I graduated from Columbia! I learned through my parents’ guidance to look at everything that I could, not just through the lens of the colonizers or the exploiters, but as a free thinker, a critical thinker. That would help me later in cinema, and everything else that I approach, as I would try to look at the overall effect of an action both on us as people and on our lovely planet.

My parents have wonderful friends of all colors, all races, both of them. I saw my dad make a hit movie with a multi-culti crew. And when I was acting in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I didn’t understand that his struggle was not only to show Black folks and white folks in a different way on the screen, but it was also about the people behind the camera. The narrative of that movie was revolutionary, but the fact that the crew was not all-white and all-male was also ultra-revolutionary. I didn’t know that.

My dad had an intensity about him that I didn’t fully understand until I started to experience and understand what he’d gone through. I remember acting for him in something when I was 18. One day, I was at lunch with some other kids in the film, and I came back four, five minutes late. My dad pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you’re not like those other kids. You’re my son. I’m the writer-producer. They’re looking for a failure. They’re looking for me to practice nepotism. So, if you’re going to act in this, you can’t be an 18-year-old that shuffles in late. You’re going to arrive earlier, you’re going to work harder, you’re going to stay later. You will not be the weak link with the last name Van Peebles. Understand that. I love you like a son, but I will kick your ass. Some Black dads teach their sons to play ball; I’m going to try to teach you how to own the team. And if you’re ready for that, step on in. But if you’re not ready, step on out.”

Now, I’m working with my kids. When one of them came in late, I said, “Listen, this is our family money on the line. I’m making Armed and I’m financing it. If you take McDonald’s money, you can’t make Super Size Me. If you take NRA money, you can’t make a film like Armed. I’m doing it.” My son Mandela took the money he made acting in Roots with me, and he threw it into the movie, so he became executive producer on the movie. At 23, he became a film investor in the family dough. So he cared about everything that was going on: “Dad, are you guys starting on time? Did you guys wrap? Was there any loss and damages? Did we keep that neighbor’s house OK that we shot in? We didn’t mess up their lawn?” Suddenly, my kids speak the language, and they have a work ethic. They get it.

I had a lot of freedom growing up because we weren’t a materialistic family. We spent money on education and travel. When you’re not heavy into material things, it’s very liberating as an artist and that’s one of the reasons I can take a chance and make a film like Armed, and do it as a family affair. My kids and I are OK with taking those risks because we know it’s more important to say and do things you believe in than to own things that you think you want.

Three generations on the red carpet: Makaylo Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles

When you have that love of self and love of family, it’s a bonus when strangers know your name and recognize you, not a necessity. What I’m thinking about is whether I can look back when I’m old and know that I made the country think at a time when it needed to, that I made memorable films which made people learn something, whether they liked them or not.

Here’s the thing: in life, pain is inevitable. It’s going to squeeze your head coming out, it’ll probably hurt when you die, and there’s going to be some pain in between. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is entirely optional. It’s about your outlook, how you perceive things. You’re not the target. You’re not the endgame. It ain’t all about you that way. But you still realize, “Oh, even if I’m really healthy and great-looking, if I live long enough, at some point, gravity will get me.” Age will take away your looks, your teeth, your eyesight, your memory. It does that, no matter who you are.

So once you understand that, you can say, “We’re here for a certain amount of time. Let’s be a part of something great — let’s effect the change we want to see.” I say there’s three loves in life: love what you do, love the folks you do it with, and love what you say with your work. I love being an artist, I love being in film. It allows me to utilize my creative gifts, my personal gifts, my social gifts, my spiritual gifts, and I feel completed by my work. I try to make films I enjoy with people that I enjoy, films that entertain but also say something and have some nutritional value. I try to stay young enough to be a good student, and old enough to be a terrific teacher. When I go out, people will say, “I love your work and I love your dad’s work. And the legacy that your family has been putting out is clearly not about just making money. It’s about something bigger than that.” And that’s dope, that’s really cool. It’s a lot of fun to be me right now.

All images courtesy of Mario Van Peebles, via his Instagram, @mariovanpeebles. Hit him up on IG and tell him what you thought of Armed!

Mario Van Peebles is the writer-director and star of the new thriller Armed, which is now in theaters, and also available on VOD and on Digital. From his first breakout hit New Jack City, to his most recent retelling of the historical Roots series, and now Armed, Van Peebles has brought challenging, compelling material to the screen. Mario directed and produced Panther, the explosive story of the Black Panther Party’s rise to power, which his father Melvin wrote and co-produced, and in 2004 produced, wrote, directed and starred as his father in Baadasssss!, the story behind the older Van Peebles’ groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. He recently teamed up with his kids on both the coming-of-age film We the Party and the eco-conscious reality show Mario’s Green House. Away from the big screen, in 2017 Mario co-created, wrote, directed, and starred in the Netflix series Superstition and directs and sometimes acts in award-winning shows such as Bloodline, Boss, Damages, Lost, Hand of God and Empire.