Director Mario Van Peebles huddles with actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson on the set of FOX’s “Empire” series, suggesting the stars infuse body language here, inflection there.
In Chicago for two weeks as guest director of the popular TV series filmed at Cinespace Studios, the 61-year-old actor/director sat down afterward to chat about his indy film “Armed,” which opened in theaters Friday.
“I’m here because there was a brother born on the South Side of Chicago in 1932 named Melvin, and he met a lovely woman by the name of Maria Marx,” Van Peebles quipped, referring to his legendary father, Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker/actor/playwright/novelist/composer who grew up on the South Side.
Then, seriously: “Directing other people’s shows is kind of like my Uber job. I learn from them, and it keeps me really sharp. Then I go off and make film that I’m compelled to make.”
“Armed” is one such film for Van Peebles, whose directing debut was the ’91 urban gangster film “New Jack City.” Made for $8 million, it raked in $47.6 million, notching the year’s highest grossing indy.
Van Peeble’s self-financed “Armed” features a multicultural cast and a critique of our nation’s gun laws. “Armed” tells the story of a former U.S. marshal who falls on hard times after leading his team on a raid that goes horribly wrong. “Chief,” now struggling with mental illness, soon learns every member of his unit suffered the same symptoms, with a larger conspiracy perhaps afoot.
Played by Van Peebles, “Chief” is on the No Fly List, considered too dangerous to board a plane. But he is able to amass a cache of weapons of war — as easily and legally as any mass shooter in recent U.S. history. He is a vigilante with a skewed sense of reality, and a poster child for both the Left and the Right in a never-ending debate over impact of U.S. gun laws on gun violence.
“It’s a psychological and action thriller, on the first level. On the second level, it’s based on real narratives. Some of the craziest things that happen in the movie are pulled from the headlines. And the tagline ‘What could go wrong?’ really speaks to what’s happening in the U.S. today,” Van Peebles said.
“The definition of crazy is to keep doing the same thing and thinking you’ll get a different result. Right now, our definition of American crazy is not making any changes to gun regulations and medication. When you have easy access to medication and easier access to weaponry — especially weapons of war — it’s a toxic mix. And you’re going to get more and more mass shootings. I just want to make people think.”
A prolific TV and film actor, Van Peebles broke into TV in ’68 on the soap opera “One Life To Live.” His first acting gig was his father’s seminal ’71 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which the elder Van Peebles self-financed, wrote, directed, produced and starred in. Hugely successful, it’s today credited with leading Hollywood to a viable African-American audience, ushering in ’70s blaxploitation films.
The younger Van Peebles’ directing credits are as prolific as his acting. Nearly 50 years after his father did an end-run on Hollywood’s closed doors, what’s Van Peebles’ take on Hollywood and diversity today?
“In films that have a multiculti cast, you’ll find race central to the narrative. If I want to do those kind of movies, I might be able to get funded. But if I want to do a movie about people who happen to be black, that’s a different issue,” Van Peebles said.
“‘Armed’ has a black leading man and a multiculti cast, but it’s just about people. Being black, white, Latino or Asian is not central to the narrative. It’s about our commonalities as Americans, not differences. And the commonality we have with the lack of gun sense is that guns are killing people in Chicago, killing people in Parkland,” he said.
“The bullet is very democratic. It doesn’t care what color. But from a Hollywood perspective, a multiculti film is not allowed to have a point of view from 30,000 feet. It has to be from 5,000 feet. I have to be dealing with just the black community to get funded, or just with Chicago and gun violence on the South Side.”
So he has built his career on a page from his father’s playbook.
“If you take McDonald’s money, you can’t make ‘Super Size Me.’ If I take NRA money, I can’t make ‘Armed.’ If I take the big studio super PAC money, I’m beholden to its mentality,” he said. “They will say, ‘Could you do it with all rappers, or put a rap soundtrack on it?'”
His directing credits are just as prolific as his acting credits. They include TV shows like Bloodline, Boss, Being Mary Jane, Damages, 21 Jump Street, Law and Order, Lost, Nashville, and Once Upon A Time. And films like “Love Kills” (’98); “Hard Luck” (’06); “All Things Fall Apart” (’11); “Red Sky” (’14); and “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” (’16).
In between have been message movies, in the vein of fellow director Spike Lee: the ’92 “Posse,” a black Western; ’95 “Panther,” based on his father’s book on the Black Panther Party; the ’96 “Gang In Blue,” about white supremacists within a police department; and the ’03 docudrama, “Baadasssss,” about the making of his father’s film.
Van Peebles knows the gun laws debate is filled with minefields. So “Armed,” he said, is a thriller viewers will enjoy, whether or not plugging into its subtext.
“I’m not saying, ‘This is what we should do.’ I’m saying, ‘Let’s take a look in the mirror’,” he said. “If that bothers someone, well, OK. But as an independent filmmaker, you have to see that vision through. If you back up, you’re backing away from your reason to be.”