In a world with racial profiling, ever-increasing interest in gangster rap and an alarming absence of minorities in media, filmmaker and actor Mario Van Peebles wants to repair the image of blacks frame by frame with a positive vision as well as a new film: We the Party.
In many ways, Van Peebles is the exact opposite of the popular Tyler Perry. Though Perry’s films have seen success at the box office, numerous critics and scholars have derided Perry for his often degrading depiction of blacks. Instead, Van Peebles looks for variability in the roles he offers black actors.
“Tyler Perry doesn’t particularly bother me,” Van Peebles said. “It’s just that I don’t think that [his] representation is helpful.”
For Van Peebles, the issue at hand is the lack of diversity not only in representations of black people but also in who’s behind the camera.
“That’s the problem [Perry] may have,” Van Peebles said. “He’s become an ambassador to us. It’s not that his vision is particularly right or wrong, it’s just that it’s one vision. When the Project X or The Hangover guys came out with their films, they weren’t forced to be ambassadors for their people.”
In any case, Van Peebles isn’t one to just sit around and criticize.
“There are three kinds of folks: people that watch sh-t happen, people that complain and people that make stuff happen,” Van Peebles said. “I’ve always been the latter.”
Van Peebles has built his career around pursuing projects with authentic, honest stories and people. His breakthrough project, New Jack City, dealt with drug trafficking in 1980s New York while the 2004 biopic BAADASSSSS! highlighted his father Melvin’s own cinematic achievement, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
His most recent film, We the Party, is Van Peebles’ attempt to accurately portray the lives of high-school students in Baldwin Hills, Calif. A dramatic departure from his usually heavy fare, the film tells the story of 16-year-old Hendrix, played by Van Peebles’ own son Mandela.
In the film, Hendrix doesn’t do drugs or belong to a gang; Hendrix is simply a high school junior who’s dealing with a crush on the popular girl, Cheyenne (Simone Battle), and pressure from his parents, played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Mario Van Peebles.
“I’m just trying to show young black folks in school in a positive way,” Van Peebles said. “Hendrix is just a young brother trying to get his grades up.”
The family reunion doesn’t stop with the director and his son — the director cast all five of his children in We the Party, and even had his iconic father Melvin make an appearance as Big D.
Some films are derailed by the presence of untrained actors; however, We the Party succeeds in its ability to pull out naturalistic performances from the young Van Peebleses, perhaps because of the fact that the characters were based on them to begin with.
The inspiration for the film came to Van Peebles in a funny way: His children wanted desperately to attend a bunch of all-ages clubs, and he told them they could go on the condition that he joined them.
“So they dressed me up in skinny jeans and sneakers and I went ‘incognegro’ with them to the clubs as part of their entourage,” Van Peebles said with a laugh.
Once there, he received insight into a world he had seldom known before. Music, dance battles and cute girls permeated the club, giving Van Peebles the inspiration to portray the lives of young black people in the most honest way possible. It’s this desire for authenticity that led him to cast his children and father, his old co-star Richardson-Whitfield and even the legendary artist Snoop Dogg.
The rapper’s inclusion is telling, as the music scene’s influence on the film is evident: We the Party flaunts multiple montages set to contemporary hip-hop, characters participating in rap battles and many guest appearances from musicians such as the New Boyz.
All together, the film feels like one long music video full of energy and passion. And though the style is fun to see on-screen, the film’s ideals are even more impressive. Van Peebles’ ultimate goal was to make a movie that children can identify with — one filled with strong, level-headed black characters who don’t just entertain but inspire, even through adulthood and parenthood.
“Any knucklehead can have a kid,” Van Peebles said. “The thing is to get them through college — to help you grow yourself. And maybe they can even inspire you to make a movie.”