Born of a revolutionary bloodline to activist filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles, you could say that Mario Van Peebles was born to make films that nudge our social consciousness and encourage us to answer questions we hadn’t thought to ask. An actor, director and writer, Mario Van Peebles’ first foray into acting was playing a younger version of his father Melvin’s character, Sweetback, in the senior Van Peebles’ most notable film, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Baadasssss Song pioneered a new era of African-American cinema throughout the 1970s. It was this small role in his father’s groundbreaking film that set the stage for Mario’s life and career. He would continue to be driven to add to his father’s earlier legacy with films that push audiences out of their comfort zone and question social and societal boundaries.
One theme that runs through much of Mario Van Peebles’ work is the assertion that we all have the right to be fully recognized human beings, but more provocatively, how do we react when we feel that right has been infringed upon? Some might call Van Peebles an iconoclast, coming for long cherished, yet often potentially destructive social norms and institutions, while remaining inherently likeable to his fans. The secret, he says, is in the characters he writes, directs and sometimes portrays; they are complex portraits that make us look at the gray areas of life while being entertained.
In his latest independent film, Armed, written, directed and starring Van Peebles, he plays a former U.S. Marshall who has fallen on hard times after he led his team of under-cover agents on a raid that went horribly wrong. Now, suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues, as well as a somewhat warped sense of reality, he must navigate life as a civilian while desperately trying to regain some former glory and recognition. Armed aims to portray the complexities of human nature and questions the publicly floated theory that “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.” Van Peebles’ character, Chief, was one of the good guys in his career as a U.S. Marshall. Still armed with a collection of guns, he now struggles with mental illness; a potentially combustible combination. The questions that this film asks are topical and obvious, but the conclusions are not, which is what makes Armed an interesting watch.
Allison Kugel: I’m going to lead with a comment that your character, Chief, makes at the end of your new film, Armed; “We’re all born into this world looking for love, and sometimes we settle for attention.” That statement is profound and ties into our culture’s current obsession with social media. What’s your take on that?
Mario Van Peebles: It’s understanding the ego and its need to experience itself. The ego doesn’t like being invisible. It can’t handle that, and so we need recognition on some level. Also, as pack animals we need recognition, because we need to have a designation within the pack or we don’t survive. A great white shark doesn’t need recognition, it just needs to eat (laughs). But a wolf… is it the beta wolf, is it the alpha wolf? It needs to know what its role is within the pack. Social norms and structure play a big part when you’re a pack animal. For example, if a kid can’t get recognized for being an A student, he’ll settle for being recognized as a disruptor, or the class clown, or the athlete, or even as the cutter. The bigger thing, of course, is to be loved. That’s the ultimate high. But when we can’t get that, we settle for some sort of attention. Now, with social media, people are creating these faux-lifestyle commercials that are not really them. There’s a Drake lyric where he says, “I know a girl happily married ‘til she puts down her phone.” The pictures you take, those Snapchats you take, are capturing these created or staged moments.
Allison Kugel: How do you connect that statement to the mass shootings that are happening with increased frequency?
Mario Van Peebles: The people who seem to commit them are often referred to as loners, and people that didn’t fit in; people who wanted a sense of importance that they didn’t feel. Part of it, I think, is that we have evolved rather quickly, socially speaking. I’m in New York right now, and I’m on the eighth floor. Someone above me is on the ninth floor, and someone below me is on the seventh floor. We’re not really designed to live like this, where we’re stacked up on top of each other. Cities are these artificial social constructs. Our bodies are pretty much the same as when we were in Egypt, or maybe when we were in chains. But socially we’ve evolved very quickly. As pack animals, as hunter gatherers, we do well in groups of maybe fifty, or even a hundred. Beyond that, we divide into sub-groups. We want to be in groups where everyone knows our name, where we are not nameless. When you live in a city and you suddenly are around whole groups of people who don’t know your name, you can be surrounded by folks and yet feel very lonely and disassociated.
Allison Kugel: You’ve come up with a catch phrase, “Make America Think Again,” an obvious retort to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” What inspired it?
Mario Van Peebles: Even before [Trump] put that slogan out there, I wanted to make films that made people think. There are three loves in life: love what you do, love and enjoy the people you do it with, and love what you say with what you do. If I can make people think while they consume art, maybe they’ll think when they’re ordering their food, or when they’re picking out what car to drive, or maybe, even when they’re voting. I’m intrigued by the relationship between the art we watch and how we vote. My film will hopefully make people discern, “Oh wow! We all have some good guy and some bad guy within us.” “A good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun,” is a very reductive way of looking at the world. The reality of human beings is much more complex. I’ve always wanted to make films that make people think, so it was just natural to say, “Let’s Make America Think Again.”
Allison Kugel: I’ve heard so many people say that putting your own money into a film is the worst investment one could make. You even wrote in your director’s statement, “The golden rule is he who has the gold makes the rule. The other [golden] rule is he who uses his own gold to finance a film is a knuckle head or has the last name Van Peebles.” (Laughs) Are you in it simply for the social impact, or is this film also a business venture for you?
Mario Van Peebles: It is for me, as well as one of my sons (Mandela Van Peebles). He took the money he made from Roots, and that’s why his name is [in the credits] as Executive Producer. He liked the idea of Armed, and I think he’s going to get a pretty good return. I’ve done it before, and it is a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. I can’t think of anything better to do with it other than paying for education and travel. I don’t want more clothes. I have one hybrid car and the air conditioner is broken (laughs). I’m laughing, but I’m serious. I will eventually get another car. But what do I want to look back on when I’m an old fart? I want to do the movies I want to do. And like I said in my director’s statement, you can’t make Supersize Me if you’re going to take McDonald’s money. All the movies lately with casts of color, and there are some wonderful movies out now, but they’re all race-centric. My movie, Armed, is not race-centric; it has nothing to do with race, and yet it’s a multiracial cast.
Allison Kugel: With this film, Armed, do you fear the echo chamber effect, where people that are on the left and proponents of gun control laws are going to be responsive, while people on the right who are very pro-Second Amendment aren’t going to be interested at all?
Mario Van Peebles: I think if you are absolutely committed to a position, then you will be committed to it with or without this film. If I make a documentary about [guns], then yes, that absolutely is the case. We don’t tend to learn informationally; we learn behaviorally. If you make something entertaining and you play against type, it tends to grab people’s attention. People are used to seeing me playing a character that is heroic. In Armed I’m playing against type. With this character, you’re kind of waiting for him to get it together, and you’re rooting for this guy. You’re in this guy’s skin, and then when it goes sideways, you’re still right there with him. It makes you feel like, “I enjoyed being there and still wanted him to win, but I was super conflicted.” The moral of this film is, can I put myself into the skin of someone who is kind of a ticking timebomb? Good film takes you in, just like good religion takes you in. Bad religion is exclusionary and says, “You can’t come in because you’re different.” … With this new film, Armed, I can try to get people inside the head of a guy who loves to be recognized, who would settle for attention, and who realizes he might not be a good candidate to be a gun owner.
Armed, written, directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, is out in theaters, on digital platforms and VOD.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.