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This son’s role of a lifetime

Times Staff Writer

Few people pay $1 million for therapy in their lifetime. Mario Van Peebles spent that in one fell swoop while making his film “Baadasssss!,” an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of his father, director Melvin Van Peebles.

“There’s been some real healing,” said Mario Van Peebles earlier this week as he continued a promotional tour for “Baadasssss!,” which opened Memorial Day weekend in a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and is scheduled to begin playing more widely next weekend.

Co-written, produced and directed by the 47-year-old Van Peebles, the film examines the chaotically bittersweet true story behind the making of his father’s groundbreaking 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which featured the elder Van Peebles as a “ghetto cowboy” battling corrupt white cops. The end dedication was to the “Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man!”

Among other landmarks, “Sweet Sweetback” is regarded as the film that launched contemporary black cinema’s portrayal of black men as determined and street-savvy heroes. “Sweetback,” which received an X rating (“from an all-white jury,” the poster boasted) when released, became the top-grossing independent film of 1971.

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But Mario Van Peebles is pursuing more than a history lesson. With “Baadasssss!,” Mario, a dead ringer for young Melvin, gets the role of his lifetime: his father, who played the title role in the crudely shot “Sweetback.” The son portrays his cigar-chomping father as a dedicated but uncompromising and frequently single-minded visionary who alienates friends, family and colleagues as he battles financial woes and personal demons.

Mario Van Peebles, who as a young boy witnessed much of the shooting of “Sweetback,” also gets a chance to revisit one of the most pivotal moments of his life: when his father recruited him to play young Sweetback in a scene in which the character loses his virginity to a prostitute.

Said Mario, “On some level I was aware of being in a war, the war of my father making this film, and what it put everyone through. I saw the pain in my own situation, but it was eclipsed by all these other things that were happening, the things that were going on around me -- death threats, money problems. When he ordered me to do that scene, my father made a choice. I wouldn’t have done that with my kids, but ultimately I came to grips with why he did what he did. With this movie, I got to symbolically and literally put myself in his place. And through all of this, a family discovered how it could exist and function together.”

Noting the new film’s $1-million budget, Van Peebles exploded with a huge laugh. “That’s some expensive psychotherapy there!”

But the effort is paying off with critical acclaim the film has garnered since it was shown last year at the Toronto Film Festival. Van Peebles has worked steadily as an actor and filmmaker but has fallen far short of the splash he made more than 20 years ago with his directorial debut, “New Jack City.” With “Baadasssss!” he is receiving the best notices of his career.

More important to the filmmaker, “Baadasssss!” has revived interest in his father’s legacy. A writer, director and author, Melvin Van Peebles, who is approaching his 74th birthday, was recently awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Father and son have taken their mutual admiration show on the road to promote the film. The younger Van Peebles delights in telling audiences how his father reacted when he asked for permission to use some “Sweetback” clips. “Sure, that will cost $2,000,” Melvin said. “Business is business.”

“The real joy of doing this is sharing the success with my father while he’s still alive,” said Mario Van Peebles. “That’s the real kick.”

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Melvin smiles when he recalls the only instruction he gave his son prior to filming: “Don’t make me too nice.” He remembers getting emotional when he first viewed the film while sitting next to his son in Toronto. “First thing I said was, ‘This is “Seabiscuit” with two legs.’ ”

Tom Bernard, president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing the film, believes it has a multilevel appeal: “This movie is everything an independent movie should be. I think it’s phenomenal and has a very positive impact for the black community and the independent film community. We’re marketing to both audiences.”

In a striking parallel, father and son said they made their respective films as a counterpoint to the traditional portrayals of blacks in Hollywood, mostly in comedies. And Mario Van Peebles said he found it “wonderfully ironic” that “Baadasssss!” opened on the same day as the controversial MGM comedy “Soul Plane.”

“Soul Plane,” about the first black-owned airline, is in the spirit of the joke-heavy “Airplane” movies and features characters who would all have trouble with an IQ test. The film’s portrayal of blacks as sex-starved and drug-crazed has drawn attacks from the black creative community, saying the movie fuels negative stereotypes. “Soul Plane” made a disappointing $7 million over the weekend.

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Mario Van Peebles said one of the artistic goals of “Sweetback” was to act as a counterpoint for Hollywood images such as the ones in “Soul Plane.” As “Baadasssss!” puts it, in narration over scenes from 1950s and ‘60s movies juxtaposed against footage of the civil rights movement, “Hollywood liked to show us clowning, but America wasn’t in a funny mood, especially black America.... Nothing Hollywood did reflected who we were.”

“Being anti-intellectual is seen as being hip. But Melvin was an intellectual who was also a cool [guy]. I have no problem with comedy, but I’m very much against perpetuating the myth that blacks have a culture of being anti-intellectuals,” says Mario. “You have two black movies opening on the same weekend. One is saying [black people] can’t fly a plane right. The other is basically saying, ‘Yes, we can.’ ”

Father and son plan to work together again. Melvin is writing his “unauthorized autobiography, because I don’t always agree with the truth I’m telling.” Meanwhile, Mario is developing book and movie projects. He said with a smile, “With the reviews being what they are, I hope there’s a chance I’ll get invited back to the Hollywood picnic.”


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