Five Favorite Films with Mario Van Peebles

The Redemption Road director also talks about movie music and his famous father.

by |

New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles's first directorial effort, was a critical and commercial smash, and he's subsequently helmed and acted in a wide range of high-profile films and television shows. He made his big screen debut as a teenager in his father Melvin's pioneering indie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; years later, the younger Van Peebles directed Baadasssss!, playing his father in a critically-acclaimed drama about the making of that seminal African-American film. His latest, Redemption Road, stars Michael Clark Duncan and Morgan Simpson in a drama about two unlikely road trip companions who find common ground in music. In an interview with RT, Van Peebles shared his favorite films, and also discussed using music as a character in his movies, working with his well-known father, and making the world a greener place..

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971, 79% Tomatometer)

Well, obviously, I would have to say my dad's movie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is one of them, for sure. You know, I was lucky in that case not only to see the film and see the first movie where an overtly empowered black power character goes up against the system and survives. That was the first of its kind. But also to see my father insist on working with a multiracial crew. He had women on it, he had hippies on it, Hispanics, Asians, you know, and really bring all these folks together. That was super inspiring, to see that you could take sort of a multiracial, sometimes ragtag crew and make the first overtly revolutionary film in America and win and change the game. Because after that, Shaft came. Shaft was written for a white detective by a guy named Ernest Tidyman, and when my dad's film Sweetback made money, they rewrote it with a black guy, and they got a young guy to do the music from Stax Records named Isaac Hayes. My dad, when he did Sweetback, had used Earth, Wind & Fire. So that was a super influential movie on me.

Easy Rider (1969, 87% Tomatometer)

Easy Rider was one I remember that just seemed to be the Peace and Freedom Party movement, in a way, reflected on screen. [Editor's note: the Peace and Freedom Party was an organization founded in California in 1967 with the goal of ending the Vietnam War.]

Black Orpheus (1959, 90% Tomatometer)

Black Orpheus was another film that I remembered as a kid. I just thought the way it was shot, in Brazil... I was drawn to the whole thing.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, 69% Tomatometer)

Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando. After that I was like, "Man, I'm going to Hawaii or Tahiti and getting me one of them!" I mean, holy moly! [laughs] Just being out in nature like that and getting away from the hard, structured Victorian England, it's almost like -- if you look at it now -- it's like a guy going organic. [laughs] In multiple ways, I thought that was exciting.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, 96% Tomatometer)

Night of the Living Dead was one I saw with my dad. I was 18 years old. It scared the s--- out of me. I think my dad and I had to sleep together that night. [laughs] I said, "No, that's it. I don't care how big I am!" And what I loved about it, too, was how [George] Romero could just take this film, and do it clearly on a budget, and yet make it work, have this sort of tongue-in-cheek humor with it.

So part of what, I think, attracted me to the films I mentioned was not just the films themselves, but how they were made, what they meant politically, on all levels. I'm attracted to all those films that, in a way, engaged us across cultures. So, you look at Night of the Living Dead and you put these people in the 1960s in this pressure cooker, and one of them is the black guy, one of them is the white guy, one of them is the chick, and the brother and sister, and you see what happens. The unspoken subtext of it was huge. It was huge, it was revolutionary.

Mutiny on the Bounty was the same thing. And even in films like Redemption Road, where I'll take the black guy, and he's the one who's into country and western, and the white guy, he's the one who's into blues, and both of them, along the way, are going to encounter music that informs their personal narrative, and it also informs the musicality of the film. So, along the way they pick up some blues, some gospel, some jazz, and that feeds into the song they play at the end of the movie, the sort of redemptive song. So I think those movies actually speak to what I'm attracted to in film. I just like something that, on some level, even if it's a horror film, is interesting and redemptive and makes you think.

Next, Mario Van Peebles talks about using music as a character in film, and working with his famous father.