Melvin Van Peebles
Photos by Brayden Olson
Aside from having one of the most amazing names I've ever heard, Melvin Van Peebles has tried, and succeeded in pretty much every type of artistic endeavor I can think of. He's a novelist, journalist, painter, film director, playwright, actor, musician...he was even a fucking stock trader on Wall Street. He's an intimidating guy to write about, much less meet, because whatever your life goal may be, Van Peebles has probably already done it, and done it better than you ever could. It's actually sort of annoying.
He's the father of blaxploitation films, and really, independent films as a whole. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, his 1971 film, not only opened the floodgates for black cinema, but completely blew away every money making record for indy films up to that time. Sweetback scared the shit out of the man too, and it was stamped with an "X" rating. Because of the film's "fuck whitey," attitude, The Black Panthers made it required viewing for all their members.
We met up with Van Peebles last Saturday in his apartment. After getting past the fancy doorman and taking the elevator to nine we knocked on his door and got the old "No English," reply in a flawless Spanish accent. Van Peebles opened the door laughing like a crazy man and led us in.
The place was like a weird-ass museum. He kept all of his files in a gigantic hot dog, complete with mustard and relish, made of fiberglass and handcrafted by himself. The top of the bun lifted up to reveal rows and rows of semi-important looking manila folders. They probably would have looked very important indeed, had they not been stored in a Herculean frankfurter. In the middle of the room was a skylight that transformed into a table, complete with fake bird shit on top and spider-cracked panes. On the side of the room opposite the wiener was the ass of a vintage VW bus embedded in the wall with what looked like nothing more than some blue-painted caulk. He flipped a switch under the bumper and an unsettling amount of smoke billowed out from the muffler. Paintings, illustrations, and sculptures, all made by Van Peebles, were on the walls and scattered randomly throughout the apartment. Some of the artworks had fancy velvet ropes guarding them, and all were titled with painfully clever names. The hot dog, for instance, was titled "Jesus (21st century version) working his 'Fish & Loaves Magic' on 'The Multitude.'"
Anyway, after we finished gawking at all of the incredible crap littering his apartment we sat down for a little chat about his life and early work.
Vice: Hi Mr. Van Peebles, can we just start from the beginning? Where are you from?
MVP: I started off working for my dad. I’m from the ultra hood, I mean, I’m from the south side of Chicago--don’t get mixed up in that. My dad had a small tailor shop and I started running it when I was ten. I took care of the money and all the other stuff. I used to stand on wooden Coca-Cola crates, so I could get up high enough to run the cash register. I was sort of the forman of the guys who worked for him too. So that’s what I did after school everyday and that’s where I picked up business. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I never had too much of a childhood because I was always running the shop.
You went all the way through school though, right?
Yeah, I went to a white high school in the city and grade school in the suburbs, so I actually lived two lives. After school every day I’d catch a train and come to work. All day Saturday and Sunday I’d work, and I spoke two languages. You know, I spoke the hygroscopic nuclei stuff on one hand, and, "Yo motha’ fucka', you didn’t pay me," on the other.
I never went to a prom, and I never saw a baseball or a basketball game, I worked everyday. But that was fine with me because I learned how to wheel and deal. I finished grade school when I was ten but they held me back for two years. So, I finished high school when I was 16 and college when I was 20. I had an art scholarship, but I needed extra money. Someone had told me about these classes that you could get paid for taking--it was called the ROTC. I didn’t know what the fuck that was…but I sure as hell found out, haha!
So that's how you got involved with the military?
Yeah, two weeks after I got out of college--I thought I was gonna save my money, go to Europe--bullshit! I was in the Air Force. I flew jets for three years as a navigator for a semi-secret bomber we had. I was flying around with a god damn atomic bomb! So this was around the time of the first wave of African American soldiers, and I remember one time we were flying over Hawaii and the pilot told us there were only three people on the plane because they didn’t know how to pressurize the cabins too well. So, there’s three guys doing the work of eight guys. I was the navigator, the radio operator, and the bombardier, and the copilot was my assistant and the pilot’s assistant. Anyway, the pilot says, "We’re having trouble with engine number one," so they take down engine number one, and they cut off engine number two. Then he says, "I think we’re having trouble with number three, maybe we’re gonna make it," and I hear this black voice saying, "Oh Lord, just let me make it to 23 Lord, please.” Who the fuck was that? That was me. They say you don’t have any atheists in the foxholes, but you don’t have any atheists on a plane on fire either. Well, the plane somehow recovered, and eventually I got out of the service.
And then you moved to San Francisco?
Well, as soon as I got out I went to the closest border around me, and that was Mexico. Mario, my oldest son, was born while I was living in Mexico. And when I decided to come back to the states things had cooled off a bit, and the best city I had seen so far was San Francisco.
I got a job as a gripman. Most of the gripmen were much larger, but I had these very thin hands, I had to wear two pairs of gloves to protect my hands.
How did The Big Heart come about?
I just realized one day that I could write an article about my job on the cable cars. And then I realized the article could grow into a book, and I told my wife, "I’m gonna do this book," and she said, "Yeah right." A lot of encouragement. So I did the book and I sold it with photos.
And that book was a sort of segue for your film career.
Yeah, a guy got on my cable car one day looking for Melvin Van Peebles. Someone on the car pointed to me, and the guy says, "No, no, the guy who wrote the book." And the man who knew me said again, "No, that’s him." So the guy comes over and starts gushing about the book and he told me my book was like a movie. "Shit, I’ll go into movies" I thought. So that’s how I went into movies.
Yeah, I called a guy I knew who knew something about film and I told him I had a camera, and that I was gonna make a film. He says, "You gonna do it in 16 or 35?” I said, "What’s that?" Then he said, "16 or 35 millimeter," I said "Oh, what’s that?" I didn’t know shitall. But I persevered and after I got the first part of the movie done, I showed it to him and he said, "It’s not a movie yet. We haven’t edited it yet." And I said, "What’s that?" The guy showed me how to stick two pieces of film together and that was my film school. I taught myself the rest.
You made a lot of the music for the films yourself too.
Well what happened with that, the guy who was supposed to do the music kept saying "Hey man, I’ll do the music for you,” but he never showed up when he was supposed to. So I wrote the music myself. I couldn't read or write music but I could count, so I numbered all the keys on the piano. That’s how I write music to this day…I just write numbers down that correspond to the keys. That’s the way I do it. It works, shit!
Makes sense to me.
So anyway, I had made these short films. I thought they were gonna be features, but my first "feature" was ten minutes long. Around this time I got fired from the cable car because the guy didn’t think Negroes should read let alone write, so they fired me. I did a great job and had never once been late, but they fired me.
So I went down to Hollywood with my movies and they threw me down the steps. I decided to go back to my second love--mathematics. I had a GI bill so I wrote to the Dutch and said I was gonna come early to get my PhD. I told them I just needed to brush up on the language. Implicit when you say you’re gonna "brush up" on the language, is that you speak it, and I didn't know a word.
To get to Holland I had to catch a boat from New York, and there was a guy in New York at that time who took avant-garde films and showed them in auditoriums or gymnasiums. Most of the films consisted of little dots and shit like that, but I wanted to tell stories. He ended up buying one of my films, I didn't think anything of it at the time, but one day when I was in Holland I got a letter from the cinematheque in France saying they had seen my films and they thought they were genius. Well, finally someone understood me. So they invited me to come over, so I hitchhiked to France.
How did the French like your early stuff?
The French loved me. They were very nice and they showed my films and everybody told me what a genius I was. After my first screening though, the lights came up on the Champs Elysees and the people and the head of the museum told me how great the film was, and that I should be in cinema. And then they got in their cars and drove off.
They just left you?
I’m standing in the fucking middle of the Champs Elysees and I can’t speak a word of French and I'm broke. I got three cans of film and two wet cheeks, from the kisses, what the fuck? So yeah, they left me there, but they’d done the most dangerous thing--they’d given me hope. So I became a beggar. I begged in the streets for years. I’d sing and beg. And I remember my big songs were La Bomba and Take This Hammer, those were my crowd pleasers.
Wait, this was after you’d shown the films and everyone said how great they were, and you were still begging in the streets?
Yeah, oh yeah. It wasn't like in America. Here, if they invite you over, they'll feed you. Fuck that, there they said, "You’re great," and walked off!
That's fucked up.
Yeah, but I got by. And as luck would have it I was walking down the street one night, I remember this very well, I was in the Southern end of Paris, and I saw a newspaper and began thinking that the story sounded like bullshit. I had learned to read French and I didn't realize it! I had been there long enough that I was reading the French paper. It was about a murderer. So I go to this newspaper, and I told them I thought the story about the murderer was bullshit. Then the editor told me to follow it up and he would make me a reporter for the set. I later realized that the only reason he told me to follow up on the story was that it was August, and August in France is when everyone leaves for vacation. If it had been any other time of the month, he would have put one of his regular reporters on it. So I go and I follow up on the story and I get a huge murder scoop. I made a discovery that changed the whole god damn investigation. And suddenly I’m a big, smart journalist, so I became a crime reporter.
What was the scoop? What did you find out?
It was a murder that happened in a place called Everette. Some guys had killed somebody and it just sounded funny, you know they were saying somebody jumped off a subway or something--yeah right. So then I became a French journalist, and eventually I became one of the editors of a French humor magazine. I had been writing novels this whole time too, and it was around this time that they began to sell. Then I discovered there’s a French law that a French writer can have a directors card. Duh!
What's a director’s card?
A director’s card allows you to make films, it’s like being in the union.
The French government still doesn’t fund the film though, do they?
They can. If you have a director’s card you can ask. So I got a director’s card and I went and asked them to put up money.
What was the law? What defined being a writer, did you have to have a certain number of published novels?
There was no definition. So I went to the place and I cased the joint. I found out they hate to back down. It was like I was doing a bank job. I went and watched the people. I noticed right after their coffee break they all seemed to be in good humor. And I also realized, if it's a law, even a weird one like the director's card, they don't want to go against it. So I went when everyone was in a good mood and I said, "Well, I’m here for my director’s card," he says, "Director’s card?"
He didn't know what the card was?
I don't think so, I had to explain to him that it was a law that said a French writer can have a director’s card. Then I showed him my novels and told him I wrote in French. He didn't say anything at first, and man, that was the longest fucking ten seconds of my life. Finally he said, "Yeah, sure," and gave me the card.
Wow, so then you had the card, did the government end up helping you with funding?
Well, I had to write a movie that was flattering to the French and then I got a partial government subsidy. Then I was able to parlay my other things into the rest of the money and I made my first film.
And then again, luck. I was at a party, and a well-dressed, tall, very majestic looking black guy was there. Someone asked if I wanted to meet him. So we were talking, and the guy was very polite and very eloquent, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was a writer, and that I was making a film the next day. It turned out he was the curator for the San Francisco Film Festival. He said he was there looking for films and I was like, "YO!" He asked me if my film would be ready for the festival, and I told him yeah, I'd have it ready. In the end I think it was myself, Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy who were invited.
This was before he’d seen the film?
He hadn’t seen the film, no. But he told everyone he had found this great film, so he lied. So all my underworld friends, the hookers and everyone else, we all pooled our fucking money and bought me a plane ticket. That’s how I came back to the States. So anyway, I went to the festival and I won the festival. Then Hollywood sent a plane for me to go down there, every studio wanted to talk to me.
The film was The Story of a Three Day Pass, right?
Yes, The Story of a Three Day Pass, every studio offered me a job to come work for them. Because Hollywood couldn't afford to have this American, black director doing French films. But I refused, because I felt that if I got the job no other minorities would get a shot. I’d become the resident genius. So my calculations were that if I didn’t do it, it would spark the search for the Great Black Hope.
And I still didn't have any money. I used to live on a park bench down near the Woodward Line Theater. The first night I was there, I remember I had to wear baggy clothes with newspapers stuffed in them for insulation.
It seems like Three Day Pass would have been hugely controversial, I mean, it’s a love story of an African American man and a white woman. How was that received?
Well, I guess France, and also here.
Well, France loved it because they thought it showed how liberal and open-minded they are, but that's bull-shit. When I first came to France the cops used to stop me all the time, the French people used to put a gun in my face like I was in Mississippi or some shit, and then he’d see my paper and say "Well, you’re an American, welcome to the fraternity, blahblahblah."
When did you decide to return to the States?
I had shot on location with The Story of a Three Day Pass and so Hollywood kept after me, I was the jewel of the crown. I told them I would come back and make a movie if I could shoot it in Hollywood, because I thought that would be the next political step, to shoot a movie in Hollywood where the unions are strong and this and that. They agreed, and that’s how I made Watermelon Man. And Watermelon Man, just like I predicted, changed everything once again. Then, after that, I said OK, well, I’ll play my next card, I’ll make the film I want to make, how I want to make it, and that was Sweetback.
Yeah, Sweetback was not only a huge milestone for African American filmmakers--but also for independent film as a whole.
Yeah, Sweetback broke all the money records, it was the largest independent film that had ever been made up until that time. So I’m the grandfather of The Blair Witch Project, as well as other things.
But, there’s a price to pay for that. I’ve never had a partner since. I had a three picture deal from Columbia--and they told me that my contract was up.
Because of Sweetback?
You're still blacklisted today?
Yeah. See, I promised people two for one. I promised them that they could feel like a liberal by helping me, and two, that they could have their white theories vindicated by my failure. Well, everybody got pissed off when I didn't fail. So I decided to do something else. Because it's very hard to control all aspects of a film--I went to Broadway. That’s how I decided to make Ain’t Supposed to Die. Because I could handle that. There was only one theater, one place that I could handle. A thousand funny things happened there. I used to be the bouncer too, and I would look this way (makes a mean face), and say, "Don’t fuck with me." Haha, it was funny! Don’t fuck with me. It’s not good for your health.
I can tell. I'm a little scared right now.
I remember I was making a movie in Canada once, with Mario and his brother, and they said "Dad, no fighting." I told them to put an amendment to that. "If anybody fucks with me," I said, "I'll send them to you. After that, if you don't get it straightened out, they're mine." That’s just the way it had to be.
You made Sweetback without the backing of a studio. How'd you go about getting it distributed?
Well, I had to hire a white guy to say he was the boss.
I would imagine theater owners, especially white ones, would be hesitant to show a movie like Sweetback at that time. Where did it play at?
Oh yeah, only two theaters in the entire United States would show it--two theaters. But it did so well there that everyone started calling. It ended up playing absolutely everywhere.
Jared (Melvin Van Peebles' assistant): I saw it in Dayton, Ohio at the drive-in. Because back in the day the drive-in was really the thing to do on the weekends to get away from the folks, and I remember when we went to see Sweetback the women got really mad, because they were like "Hey, we're in the back seat waiting," and we were like "No, no, check out this movie!"
MVP: Opening night man, fucking people around the god damn block. It was huge, huge, huge. It opened on a Wednesday in Detroit and on a Friday in Atlanta. When I got to the theater in Atlanta, I told the guy not to worry, that people would show up. Then he told me the theater was already full.
I went into the theater and you could have heard a rat pissin’ on cotton. They had just desegregated Atlanta, so it was packed with black people, but not a sound. I found one seat, and this was really one of the most interesting points in my life, there was an old black lady sitting beside me, and when Sweetback was out in the desert she said, "Oh Lord, let him die. Don’t let those men kill him." Because you see, in movies up to that time, if a minority stood up, he died before the end of the movie. Fuck that. Nobody could believe he was gonna actually live or get away.
Yeah, but it seems like regardless of the message, and the fact that the main character was an African American killing white cops, you would think the money alone would have made distributors pick up your stuff after something that financially successful.
You'd think. Don’t Play Us Cheap, my second Broadway show wasn’t supposed to be a show, but after I finished the movie and I went to get it distributed nobody would do it.
The Story of a Three Day Pass obviously deals with racial issues as well, but in a much more subtle way. Sweetback was killing cops and just a bad mother fucker in general, was there a reason that you were more blatant about your message in Sweetback? Were you becoming more angry at everything going on during that time period?
Well, with The Story of a Three Day Pass I had to get money from people to make it.
So you were pandering to the French?
Yeah, it was flattering to the French, but not too flattering to the Americans. I had to show how wonderful France was.
If somebody’s gonna fuck you, just hope they use Vaseline. You know what I mean? Shit, you gotta be realistic. So with Sweetback I shot my first scene salaciously so that the unions would think that I was shooting a porno movie. Then, the next part I shot in the hood in such a way that they would be reluctant to come down and start trouble. Then, the third part I shot in the desert where nobody knew where the fuck to find me.
Haha. Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that opening scene. Salacious is almost an understatement for a little kid plowing a grown woman. How old was that kid?
That was Mario, my son. He was about 12, I guess.
Was he excited about it? Or was he weirded out?
He didn't want the kids at school to see him doing that. You know kids, I told him not to worry about it, shut the fuck up and do what I say. Now, every time he gets a broad he says, "Hey honey, come and watch me in this movie."
Yeah I'd be showing everybody that, it's like he had a sex tape before he hit puberty.
Hello--of course. But you know kids, what the hell. And now he’s making movies so that's great.
And it all started from lying naked on top of a grown woman in '71.
Yeah, but what I found very interesting, is that people couldn't believe I used my own son. Everybody’s somebody’s kid. If it was so wrong, why would I do it with somebody else's kid?
What sort of backlash did Sweetback get? I read somewhere that you got some death threats.
Oh, there’s been lots of them. Yeah.
Can you talk about some of them?
Well, there’s not much to talk about. People don’t give you a threat and then say, "Oh, you can get me at this number." The most dangerous ones I got were from black organizations, because they had decided how the revolution, or how the change was gonna happen, and here I am making it happen without them. They would say, "We must take over the world this way, and we must take over the world that way." No, just take over the world god damn it. That was some funny shit.
The Black Panthers made your film required viewing for its members. That's pretty badass.
Fucking yeah, that was great, it also got a lot of people to see my film.
Had they ever done that with anyone else's work?
No, who else's would they have shown? They never did it before, they never did it after.
Before that though, you put "Free Huey," on the back of your record, Br'er Soul.
Haha, yeah, they thought it meant "Free? Huh, no way," but it meant Huey Newton was still in jail. Nobody else was standing up for the motherfucker.
So they had no idea what it meant?
Nope, no idea.
And The Panthers asked me if I needed backup, and offered to be my bodyguards too, but I never asked them to make Sweetback required viewing.
Did you feel pretty invincible like, "No one can fuck with me now"?
Nope, somebody can fuck with me, but I will try and bring them down with me. You see, when is an animal most dangerous? When it’s cornered. What the fuck did I have to lose? I’d never been late for the cable car and the guy fired me after the book was a success, so the way I saw it, if somebody fucked with me, I had nothing to lose, so you don't want to go there. You got a goddamn canary cornered, he’ll fight.
But you just can't take any shit. I remember one time, Sweetback was showing in Boston, and it didn't do well in Boston, and this guy called me and he said he had seen the film in Detroit when it first came out, and he wanted to know why I had cut stuff out for the Boston theater. I didn't know what the fuck he was talking about, so I took my gun and I went down to the theater. I went to the guy in charge and I said "Hey motherfucker, I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off. Put the fucking film back how it was." He tried to tell me he didn't like that scene, who the fuck asked him what he liked?
What scene was it?
I don't know.
You don’t know? There was a couple of them, he was just chopping it down.
Was he chopping it down for size, or because he thought it was too risque?
He found it offensive blah blah, whatever. I guess it was too militant or some shit, but I’m standing on the edge of a cliff. Like I said, I don't have shit to lose.
After talking to you for a while, it certainly sounds like you live up to the ass kicking character of Sweetback, but you're really talkative, is there a reason Sweetback was so tight-lipped? Why did he have so few lines?
That is such an interesting question. One day, I was walking past the corner deli, and this group of guys looked at me and said, "OOOOHRRHHGGFF." I said, "oh fuck," I didn't know what their deal was, but it turned out they were deaf mutes, and they liked the film because they could understand it. Also, people talk too much, they say, "Oh, do you know you're invading my rights as an American?" No motherfucker, you fuck with me you’ll learn a fucking lesson. I’ll blow your fucking head off, period. Talk doesn't get it, it's not a bible he needs, it’s a brick. Somebody fucks with you, that’s what you do. Another thing the lack of dialogue did that I thought was interesting, was it made the audience read his mind.
Yeah, it’s true, it’s really weird how you can sort of tell what he's thinking from the facial expressions and things like that. Like when he’s watching the two cops beat the other guy and then he just goes ape shit.
He didn’t have to say, "Wow, you see how they treat us colored people, golly!" No.
I was at a bar the other night, and a girl was looking at me. Come on now, you don't need words, haha, you know what I’m thinking, you're thinking the same thing I’m thinking, alright. Let’s do it.
It never seems to work out like that for me.
You got to do it with real meaning. It's great when you're in some fucking foreign country and you don’t have to go through all that fucking shit. It's just like, I can’t talk to you and you can’t talk to me, well what do you understand? All right, come on mamason, let’s get it on.
One time I was down in Denmark, at this party. As I was leaving I met this woman--she can’t speak English, I don't speak Danish, so what the fuck are we going to say, do you know what I mean? Otherwise you've got to have 20 minutes of talk, "Oh yes, you take what classes? What did you study?" Neither one of you is listening. So I went home with her, and I see a picture of her with her husband and she says, "He won’t be back until five o’clock." OK, so it’s about three-thirty and she gives me some pajamas to put on. So I put on the guy’s pajamas and, OH SHIT, FUCK THAT! They were huge! I said "You’re married to fuckin’ King Kong. Fuck you!"
You can tell a lot from the size of a man’s pajamas.
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