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Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

Mario and Mandela Van Peebles on Being a Dynamic Father and Son Duo in ‘Outlaw Posse’

The Van Peebles might not be the first cinematic family you think of, but they are unquestionably Hollywood royalty. Patriarch Melvin was one of the first major Black filmmakers, bringing Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song to the big screen, introducing Black themes to audiences in the 1970s in the process. One of the original mavericks and a pioneer of the Blaxploitation movement, he walked away from the studio system to embrace his independence and make the films he wanted to make.

His son Mario first hit it big in Clint Eastwood’s 1986 hit film Heartbreak Ridge, found more success as an actor and turned that into his own filmmaking success, both in the studio system — with movies like New Jack City and Panther (written by his dad!) — and out. His son, Mandela, has followed in their footsteps, becoming a successful actor in his own right. Melvin died in 2021 at the age of 89, but his progeny are still making movies, often together. Mario wrote and directed the fun new western Outlaw Posse, in theaters March 1, in which both he and Mandela also star. The two of them sat down with us from Los Angeles.

This is not your first western. You’ve done this a few times before.

Mario: Not my first rodeo, no. (Laughs)

Where did the idea for this come from?

Mario: My big break was a film called Heartbreak Ridge with Clint Eastwood, and we talked about the history of the West. He’d done a series of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, of course, and Gunsmoke and we talked about almost one out of three cowboys being black. You saw that dynamic in Unforgiven, you know, he put Morgan Freeman in there. Of the first 44 settlers of Los Angeles, I think 26 were Black. The name cowboy, they called Black men boys as a derogatory term.

When Hollywood started to glorify cowboys, you got white actors suddenly being cast as cowboys. Even as Native Americans, white guys would play those. In the early Westerns, if you saw an Asian person, they were sort of Hop Sing, the differential houseboy. Mexicans, it was like, the oily bandit that don’t need no stinking badges. The only good Indian was a dead Indian and women were pale and frail and needed rescuing. So people of color were sort of marginalized as depicted in the early West.

So you wanted to tell a Western story we weren’t used to?

Mario: Part of what I wanted to do was not take our country back, but take the history back of how diverse the West really was. Dr. King has a great line where he says, “We either learn to live together in harmony or perish together as brothers and sisters as fools.” We were all there, so we have to see that history to understand. This is the funner place to do it. Can we entertain and have a lot of fun in the West? Maybe give a little entertainment, too?

Mandela, your dad and your grandfather both have strong activist streaks in their work, and I’m curious about your experience growing up in that atmosphere.

Mandela: The social justice aspect of filmmaking went deep with the Van Peebles, for sure. Everything we have is based around the Blaxploitation era and the injustice involved with that, and Melvin eventually just saying, enough is enough, I want to tell my story. I think that’s great. I think that one of the beauties of working in media is through entertainment and the guise of storytelling, you can affect real-life change in the real world. I think, although this is set in the West, the issues we’re tackling and discussing are very much so still relevant today.

Mandela, did you ever have a moment where you told your dad, “I don’t want to go into the family business,” and your dad said, “No, like it or not, you’re in. Your grandfather did it, I did it, you’re doing it?”

Mario: (laughs)

Mandela: Quite the opposite. I was never a huge fan of being a student, but he was definitely pretty encouraging about going to college and having a Plan A. Really, for me, that was always going to be Plan B, having a backup plan that had nothing to do with the family business. But yeah, my calling was definitely on the creative side of things. Growing up watching this guy making a living and supporting all of us, getting to bring us along. We’ve been all over the place, and being a part of that lifestyle from a young age, I knew it’d be hard for me to have a regular job.

Mario, do you make him audition?

Mario: Yes and no. He’s been auditioning for years, he just didn’t know it. I’ve seen him grow significantly as an actor. He has a show called Reginald the Vampire that he’s on, and he’s really great in that. And then he was on the Taylor Sheridan show Mayor of Kingstown. I’ve seen him as an actor growing to now bring him in. Look, my dad gave me my first lines in a feature film ever, and I gave him his last lines in a feature film ever. That doesn’t happen every day. My daughter Morgana is an actress, too. I guess we’re like The Jacksons without the musical talent.

This is not the first time you guys have worked together. What’s that dynamic like not just father and son, but director and actor?

Mario: I think I’m actually more user-friendly than my dad was. [To Mandela] He was a little more mellow when you got to know him, but to get shit done in my dad’s time period, you had to go in there with more direct force. I’ve been able to navigate things a little more diplomatically, but that’s only because he made a hole so I could travel that path. But our dynamic is one of love. We have different colors that we tune into. If we disagree as father and son, we’ll still not disagree as filmmaker and actor. So there’s a lot of trust and understanding of each other and how we move as a team.

You two have a scene before the film’s climax, where Mario’s Chief has a moment with Decker, his son, basically telling him to live his life, and that he’s proud of him. It’s a powerful moment. And while I’ve seen that moment on film before, I don’t remember seeing it between an actual father and son on screen. What was that like, playing that scene together?

Mario: A lot of people who’ve had a troubled relationship with their fathers look at that scene, and it really hits them where they say, I wish I had gotten to have that. I had it with my dad where he got to say, look, I may not know everything, but I’m trying to give you what I believe you will be able to use and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But if I’m right 80% of the time, you can win 80% of the time and add to it. Don’t take my bad, take my good. Any good in me, take my good.

Mandela: I think what we’ve been lucky enough to do for a profession, this world of acting and playing make-believe, is very therapeutic. And whether it’s exactly issues we’ve had or not, you can bring feelings and emotions and even thoughts and agency from other aspects or other things you’ve lived through into the scene. I think it’s really beneficial that we’ve worked together before, and also spent so much time as father and son, playing father and son. It gives you a lot of ground to work with, and a lot of room to play with.

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