For Mario Van Peebles, ‘We the Party’ Is a Family Affair
Four of Van Peebles’ talented kids are in the film, including son Mandela in the lead role
I want to be a Van Peebles! That’s how I felt after talking to actor/director/writer Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City,” “BAADASSSS!”) and his teenaged son Mandela about their new film “We the Party.” The film, written and directed by Mario, son of filmmaking pioneer Melvin Van Peebles (who has a cameo), features four of Van Peebles' offspring—Mandela, Makaylo, Morgana, and Maya. It’s an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, “We the Party” is a raucous R-rated teen party movie that focuses on issues we expect in such films—losing your virginity, trying to fit in, surviving in school, dealing with bullies. On the other hand, with all the laughs, sex, and frequent F-bombs, “We the Party” is also a poignant, authentic story about family and friendship that addresses racial stereotypes, environmental awareness, and homelessness, among other socially conscious topics. All against the backdrop of a cutting-edge hip-hop score.
“We the Party” includes performances by Snoop Dogg, YG, The New Boyz, The Rej3ctz, The Pink Dollaz, Michael Jai White (“Why Did I Get Married?”), Salli-Richardson-Whitfield (“I Am Legand”), Moises Arias (“Hannah Montana”), Simone Battle (“The X Factor”), Orlando Brown (“That’s So Raven”), Tiny Lister, and Quincy Brown.
I so enjoyed sitting down with Mario and Mandela to talk about their new film and their extraordinary globe-hopping family. We discussed some of the parallels between the character rapper YG plays in the film and Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Just a few days earlier, Geraldo Rivera had made his controversial comment about Trayvon’s “hoodie.”
Mandela Van Peebles: The timing of that was crazy! If you look at our poster, one of the main characters actually wears a hoodie. You can see that YG’s character has been misjudged and prejudged a lot in his life, just like Trayvon was in that situation.
Mario Van Peebles: Someone asked me if we did that deliberately on the poster and I said no, man, those were printed months ago! Now people are wearing hoodies as a protest thing.
Mandela: My character ends up being the only one who doesn’t prejudge YG and we become friends. One of our messages is that you never know what someone’s really going through unless you get to know them. But a lot of people just make assumptions.
MSN Movies: You have three generations of the Van Peebles dynasty in this film.
Mario: Ha! Calling us a “dynasty” is flattering, but a little grander than we are! I think we’re more like a family farm, where you learn how to plow the north forty, feed the chickens, and take care of the tractor. I think of my dad on the porch with a banjo, rocking back and forth with his overalls rolled up, I’m out by the tractor, Mandela’s out in the fields with his brother and sisters—it’s the filmmaking family farm! And it’s fun because you learn everything. Mandela, tell him what you were doing last night!
Mandela: I’m shooting my own piece right now called “Flipped” with Patrick Cage who plays Chowder in “We the Party.” He’s producing it with me, I wrote it, I’m directing, and my dad’s in it.
Mario: Yeah, he’s directing me, so I’m working for nothing now! Just like they gave me the “family discount” when I directed them in “We the Party.”
Was it your idea from the beginning to use all of your kids in the film?
Mario: Well, you know, it was inspired by them. Mandela was dating a girl that happened to be named Cheyenne (like his girlfriend in the film). Makaylo is on the debate team at school and the kids nicknamed him Obama (his character’s nickname). My eldest daughter, who’s at Howard, loves to gossip and be the Queen Bee—we took lots of different pieces of our lives and put them up there. As for me, I have a lot of “Mario-isms” that I riff to them in the car, like “Minimum effort today means minimum wage tomorrow.” We put those in there, too, for my character. The film is like us in some parallel universe!
Mandela, how much is your dad like the character he plays in the film?
Mandela: Oh, I’d say about a hundred percent! The whole idea for this film started when my siblings were tired of going to house parties and we wanted to go to some all-age clubs. We asked dad, can you give us a ride to some of these clubs, and he said—
Mario: Hell no! Unless I can go with you!
Mandela: And that really wasn’t going to work with my siblings, bringing your dad to a club is like bringing a cop. But I said we could just make it look like he’s part of our entourage. We’ll dress him up, give him some skinny jeans, put a hoodie on, and it worked! He went, and I guess he had some fun and just got inspired.
Was it anything like you thought it would be?
Mario: It was a different world! Slow dancing these days looks like safe sex on the dance floor. You can’t listen to their music without putting a condom on! But I noticed something else. Think back to “House Party”—a lot of fun, a lot of heart, but it was all black. Now think about “Breakfast Club”—also fun, with heart, but all white. The clubs out there now, it’s a real mix! That was very interesting to me—different kids, different flavors. I wanted to show that in “We the Party,” that racial lines are starting be be more blurred.
I know you wrote the script but were you open to your actors telling you things like “No, we wouldn’t say this!”
Mario: Absolutely! A big part of it was getting it tonally right. The conversations that are coming up in today’s generation are vastly different than what we were talking about. They’re exposed to hyper-materialism, hyper-sexuality, green issues. These kids have a lot of information that is instantly accessible but not always a lot of life experience. I think “We the Party” is not afraid to address these real conversations or at least move the ball down the court.
How did you go about getting all these great hip-hop artists in the film?
Mario: A lot of them came from people my kids saw in clubs. Tell him how we got The Rej3ctz!
Mandela: We met them when they were performing at one of those all-ages clubs. We really liked their song so they ended up in the movie. They didn’t even have a single out yet when we met them, but now one of their YouTube videos has over 60 million hits! With YG, I knew his little brother before the movie. When my dad said he was looking for someone with that description I told him he had to check out YG.
Mario: I wanted the film to be authentic. When I directed “New Jack City,” I used people from different walks of life. I got Chris Rock and Wesley who’s very talented as an actor, and Ice-T who’s got real street cred. So I sat down with YG for this film, even though he'd never acted and rehearsed with him. He really got it. He said a lot of the stuff in the film really happened to him, it was very real.
Are all of your siblings pursuing the “family business?”
Mandela: I’m not sure what they all want to do career-wise. For me, I hope to pursue that along with directing and writing, kind of following in my father’s footsteps.
Mario: We do a lot of different things. Mandela taught in South Africa last summer, Makaylo was teaching in Thailand, Maya was in Ghana…
Mandela: Some of us went to school in Costa Rica for a while…
Mario: So they’ve all gone and done other stuff outside of this business, you don’t want to have kids raised in a Hollywood cocoon.
I always wonder with acting families—how would you react if one of them came to you and wanted to be an accountant?
Mario: Oh, that’s cool! Kids come through you, they don’t come from you! And just because you enjoy something, it doesn’t mean you’ll make a living doing it, otherwise we’d all be food tasters and porn stars! What I do hope they all get is a work ethic. My grandfather had a tailor shop on the south side of Chicago and my dad worked there as a kid. He didn’t go into the tailoring business but he applied that work ethic to his career. He also saw my grandfather make a real difference in the community. Just because he had a tailor shop over here didn’t mean he couldn’t stand up for the rights of these workers over there.
My German grandfather was a professor at Harvard and Yale but my black granddad taught himself to read. He made a little money and there’s this story where his buddy asked him what kind of Cadillac he was going to buy. My granddad said, “You know what? I don’t think I’m gonna get a Cadillac.” His buddy asked, “Why?” and he said, “Well, I think I’m going to send my son to this place called college.” And that decision changed our lives. My father went off to college, met my mother, they sent me to college…
Mandela: “Smart is the new gangsta…”
Mario: You’ve got kids right now who are saying wait a minute—we know what thug life looks like, we know what ballplayers’ lives look like, and now we know what smart life looks like, it could take me to the White House! If you’ve got kids who for a fraction of a minute are embracing “Smart is the new gangsta!” and looking at people like Zuckerberg and Gates and Obama, if you can get them to think, hey, that’s fun, let’s go that way, that’s everything. Because you’re still going to have situations like Trayvon, and even if that wasn’t in the news, you’ve got half of all African American boys not graduating with their high school class. So to have a movie like “We the Party” where at the core of it is a kid trying to get his GPA up, that’s pretty exciting!
“We the Party” opens in select cities on April 6.