Washington--He'd just directed and starred in a huge hit for Warner Bros. called "New Jack City." His phone was ringing, well-wishers were everywhere. As an actor and as a director, he commanded the highest respect. Most important, he knew he was hot because "when they talked to me, they put 'baby' on the end of my name."
As in Mario, baby, you can do anything you want . . . as long as it has the word "Jack" in the title: "New Jack City 2" "Shaft Goes to New Jack City" or "Boyz in New Jack City."
So Mario Van Peebles decided instead to strike out in a different direction. No Jacks in his future: He's made the first African-American version of an Italian version of a Japanese version of an Anglo-American . . . western.
"Yeah," he says with a good-natured laugh, "I put it all in there. I have pocket watches with chimes and people crashing through windows in slow motion and gunfighters silhouetted against the sunset and golden bullets and good white guys and bad black guys and bad white guys and good black guys and lots of horses and dust and six-shooters. I don't think I missed much."
And he didn't. The film is "Posse," which opens Friday, and it may be great or it may be garbage, but it certainly is ambitious and energetic. Now you know why they call them horse "operas." It has more ups, downs, head-'em-off-at-the-passes and they-went-thataways than any 10 westerns from the good old days of westerns. And it also has more African-Americans than any 10 westerns from the good old days of westerns, though the conspicuous irony of that reality may change the meaning of "good old days" considerably.
"Posse" is about a gang of buffalo soldiers -- black infantrymen -- who return from the bloody fighting in Cuba in the Spanish-American War with a trunk-full of stolen gold, a mean white colonel and his men on their trail, and a mission. The mission, personal property of their leader, Jesse Lee (Van Peebles), is to avenge an atrocity in the West 10 years past: Jesse Lee's father, King David, founder of a black "free town" on the prairie, was murdered by Ku Klux Klanners. Now the Klanners are again assailing the place, which may be on land valuable to railroad interests.
That's one way of looking at it. Another way is from the point of view of a thirtysomething black American director who came of age watching Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and John Ford's out-scale versions of how the West was won, and who has re-created it, only this time with the proper racial distribution.
"Somehow, when they got around to telling about how the West was won, we weren't there," says Van Peebles as affably as the Columbia economics graduate that he is.
By the numbers
Now, of course, the authentic movie star and director doesn't look like any kind of economics major, though he still has the movie business numbers down cold. ("See," he explains, "a hit is only a hit relative to its expense. 'New Jack' did $50 million, but it only cost $8.5 million, so the profit was huge.")
Ivy League? You'd never think so, not for a minute: black motorcycle boots, black jeans, a black polo shirt and a black suede jacket with fringe, not exactly a low-profile look in a town where all the men dress in gray suits with little black pointy shoes and red ties. Still, amid all the blackness of wardrobe is his unassailable matinee-idol face, one of those square jobs, big on white teeth, cheekbones and clear, powerful eyes. He's got that movie-star thing, which attracts giggles and whispers in a Washington restaurant sure as any politician would.
But now Van Peebles remembers the westerns of his youth.
"I loved 'em. I could really get into them. And then there'd come a moment when the black guy came shuffling on and he'd say something like" -- he squinches up his face like a slow-walking, slow-witted manservant and issues a pitch-perfect imitation of the old black face of entertainment -- " 'Mistah Sheriff, youse be wantin' me gwine feed dem hosses, suh?' And I'd just lose it. I just couldn't take it."
From that era, only one hero emerged: Woody Strode, the tall, dignified and muscular icon from such films as "Spartacus" and "The Professionals," but particularly Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," where he gets equal treatment with Jack Elam as a gunman who faces Charles Bronson in a famous pre-title sequence.
So if the West of "Posse" is multi-hued, it's only in accordance with the facts, according to Van Peebles: One out of every three cowboys was black; the West was dotted with free towns; blacks took part in all aspects of Western culture, from crime to cattle drives; and, in fact, even the word "cowboy" is derived from slave usage, originally being a derogatory term to denote the field hands in charge of the cattle, before it passed into general usage to denote a noble white hero of the plains.
Actually, Van Peebles came into the western business almost by default. His original choice for a non-Jack follow-up to "New Jack City" was somewhat more mellow -- an erotic thriller set in the black middle class.
Bad career move.
"Didn't have a chance," said Van Peebles with a bitter smile. "In the first place, there's a taboo from the get-go about black sexuality on screen. And then there's this business of the black middle class. I'd talk about it and they'd say, 'No, that's not
realistic.' That was their favorite word, realistic. It meant, no crack dealers, no arrests, as if crack dealers and narcs are the one bedrock reality of African-American life."
When he was a stage actor, Van Peebles played in a production called "The Legend of Deadeye Dick," about a famous black outlaw. With that experience as his guidepost, Van Peebles began with the idea and soon came across a script by the black-and-white writing team of Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane, based on the story of Richardson's grandfather, who had founded a black free town in the West. That script, called "The Revenge of JesseLee," became the basis of "Posse."
It wasn't the sort of project he could interest the big studios in.
"There's just wisdom in that business you can't fight. One is that nobody is interested in black period pieces. All black movies have to be set in the 'hood, that's the rule, or they fail. Now when somebody makes a movie with no blacks in it but, say, a shark, and it fails, nobody says, 'Ah, see, white movies don't do business.' They say, 'Hey, fish movies, they always fail.' But I wanted to break out of the ghetto. I didn't want to be on the basketball team any more."
Eventually, he set up with an arty British production company called Working Title whose films include "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammie and Rosie Get Laid" and "The Tall Guy." Working Title provided him with his $9.5 million stake.
"The old prejudices don't hold in Europe."
But Van Peebles didn't just want to make a western; he wanted to make the western.
"I saw it as a kind of cavalcade. I didn't want a black western, I wanted a multiracial western. That's why one of the co-stars is a white guy, Stephen Baldwin, and one of the bad guys is a black guy, Blair Underwood. And I wanted people in it from all generations of show business."
Thus in a curious way it's a kind of who's who of black entertainment. Van Peebles knew he could get the young guns of black entertainment -- rappers like Tone Loc, culture heroes like the immense Tiny Lister. But he wasn't sure about the older generation.
"I wanted a 'Young Guns' meets 'The Wild Bunch' kind of thing."
So he went to his father for assistance.
It helped more than a little that his father is the Melvin Van Peebles, one of the ranking radical black filmmakers of the '70s, with "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," a legendary first-generation expression of black rage. So, as the son recalls, "I got the '90s posse and he got the '70s posse," which is how come such players as Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Nipsey Russell find themselves rubbing shoulders with Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc.
And he paid back one debt from childhood: The teller of the tale of the posse is old Woody Strode, now in his 80s, just as proud and unbent now as he was in his heyday 30 years ago.
Van Peebles said that one day on the set, Woody came up to him and said with a laugh, "I can't believe I lived to be 80 to see a young brother like you direct a movie like this!"
And now for the hard question.
Does "Posse" have a chance of succeeding?
After all, as conventional as conventional wisdom is, maybe it's right.
"I don't know," says Van Peebles. "I saw some white women looking at a poster for it in New York, and one of them turned to the other and said, 'Black cowboys! Who are they kidding?' "
He understands the risks: Maybe black audiences won't come because it's a period piece, and maybe white audiences won't come because it's a "black" movie."
"I still believe that people want to see good movies and that they'll cross the artificial black-white line if they think something interesting's going on in the theater. But if I go down," he says, "at least I went down doing something I wanted. And, hey . . . I still have that B.A. in economics!"
And if he succeeds, it's easy to predict what he'll be called: the one-man super Mario brother.