MARIO VAN PEEBLES laughed when he was asked if the press tour he was doing was tiring. "Tiring? Being put up in four-star hotels? Getting a bathrobe with the room? That's not tiring. I love it," he said.
Van Peebles is the son of Melvin Van Peebles, who made black-oriented films back in the '60s. The son has just done his first film as a director, and according to Mario, Melvin is one happy man.
"He's very proud, but I owe it all to him," he said. "I once told him that growing up with him was like growing up with James Brown. Brown is the godfather of soul, and my dad is the godfather of film. He's planning a new movie. It will be about the SDS" (Students for a Democratic Society).
Mario's film is called "One Jack City." It's a mob film, one that takes place in Harlem where drug kings take over an entire housing complex and turn it into a fortress.
"When I got the script for the film, it read like a black version of 'Scarface'," said Van Peebles. "Our film takes place today, and we wanted it to look more like 'The Untouchables.'
"We also had to be careful not to preach," he said.
So how about the postscript? It reads like a preacher's cue card.
"That decision was made by more than just me," said Van Peebles. "Only a year ago, I was walking around wearing different wigs. This is my first film as a director. I'm not Francis Ford Coppola, so if I err, let me err on the side of preachiness."
He did make one demand. He wanted two weeks of rehearsal before filming and got it.
He was asked to direct the movie after he did a few episodes of "Sonny Spoon," the television series in which he starred. "21 Jump Street" was done by the same company, and Van Peebles was asked to do a few of those.
"I was doing eight or nine pages a day, and that made an impression," he said. "It was a little like meeting a girl. Twentieth Century Fox was interested. Warner Brothers knew that, so I played one against the other. When I was given the assignment, we talked about my vision of the film. We also talked about budgets. The movie came in for $8.5 million."
That helped, and now Van Peebles is getting "all kinds of scripts. Now, I'm just a film maker, and that's the way I want it to be," he said. "Hollywood, you know, isn't black and white. It's green, the color of money."
Van Peebles is quick to applaud others who have made all this possible for him. "I couldn't have done this five years ago," he said. "I may not be able to do it five years from now, but right now, I can, thanks to people like Spike Lee."
He was asked why he chose to exploit the black female form in the film. "Beautiful, aren't they?," he said. "We need our black Kim Basingers."
Asked if his looks have ever hindered him, he said, "Well, they tried to have me dress fancy on 'Sonny Spoon,' but I told them I couldn't do that, that I would look like a model, walking through the sets.
"People did tell me that I could play anything, but that was really nothing. If you're part of a minority, you should look like the best friend, not the leading guy. Yeah," he said, "your plasticity can get in the way."
He is not among those who criticize Bill Cosby for not making the Cosby comedy series "more black."
"I'm delighted with Bill Cosby for several reasons," said Van Peebles. "He gave money to my dad, and he put me in his show. People say the Huxtables are not real, but I don't agree. I went to a ski resort where someone asked me if I was a member of The Brotherhood, an association of 5,000 black skiers. There were Huxtables all over that place. The Cosby show doesn't represent everybody, but they are out there."
He is aware that people will compare him to other black directors, and he would rather they did not.
"We shouldn't be forced to compete with each other," he said. "If David Lynch makes a bizarre film, he's just another crazy white guy. If a black director makes a movie, he is immediately compared to other black directors."
"One Jack City" opens here on Friday. Van Peebles plays a lead role in the film. Others in the cast are rap artist Ice T and Judd Nelson.
The casting of Ice T as a cop was a calculated decision on the part of Van Peebles. "I don't want anyone going away from the film expressing admiration for the bad guys," he said. "Young people know Ice T's background, that he escaped the gang life. We wanted someone with whom the kids could identify. He brings his own background to the role."
Nelson was one of the Brat Pack, a group of young performers who were much in evidence a few seasons ago but have since diminished in prominence.
"Judd and I had worked together at Stella Adler's school," said Van Peebles. "I needed someone to play the white cop and called him. He said 'Cool,' that he would like to play a minority role, and in this film, that is what it is."
Asked if his movie is anti-drug, Van Peebles said he had to figure that out. "I don't really know, and I don't know about legalization, either. I know all the arguments, but I don't know the answer. When people point to alcohol, saying it is legal, so why shouldn't drugs be legal, I say, sure, and look at all the drunk drivers we have."