Contributor: Victor Amokeodo, Ayo Awoyungbo
"Nothing's Changed for the Black film maker"
BP: In the Introduction to your book, Sweet Sweetback?s Badasss Song, You wrote that Black people were trapped in a psychological cage that says ?No you can?t? but some managed to escape this cage by an oversight of the system, by luck or by a personality quirk. Now you achieved so much in the 60s and 70s when so many Black people were still being held down by the system....
Van Peebles: Don?t forget the eighties and nineties, man....!
BP: We are not saying you have ceased to achieve. You are still achieving...
Van Peebles: No, no let me jump on this case. What happened is that it just depends which fields you know. In the financial field, I was the first (African- American) trader in the 80s on the American Stock Exchange and I wrote a definitive book about how to trade on the market which became a best seller and that?s an entirely different role. You know, I have been moving around in various roles.
BP: OK, I think I?ll just rephrase that. Not just the 60s and 70s. You are a great achiever. But, even today many Black people are still being held down by the system. Would you say that your success in those difficult periods was due to luck, an oversight of the system or down to your peculiar personality?
Van Peebles: I will say to the latter. Well, really all three. I had an split childhood which allowed me to see the interior workings of the white culture and the African- American culture. This has been a huge advantage. But then, I was a bit lucky to be at some of the places at the time. I think the dichotomy of my early experiences moulded the personality that I have. I was always in situations which were completely new to me and therefore newness does not frighten me. It is norm rather than the abnorm for me. For want of a better term, we call it the personality but really it is just the conditioning. I went to a school where there was no other Black kid. When I was in the air force there was no Black guys flying in my squad.... and on and on and on. So I had no one to turn to with complete trust and therefore I had to learn to check with the times and since no one would show me, many times when you learn something new, you can see an area in the paradigm of the old way that the people who learned that way can?t even see for themselves and that was a great advantage.
BP: This probably applies more to the 60s and 70s - obviously, in spite of your early achievements, the system never let you forget that you were a Black man in 60's America....
Van Peebles: No it doesn?t apply more to the 60s and the 70s. Nothing?s changed. Things haven?t got better.
BP:... What was your most painful experience of racism during this period.
Van Peebles: I think once when I was in the Boy Scouts and I should have gotten the flashlight of the month, they didn?t give it to me. They gave to somebody else.
BP: What do you mean by "the flashlight"?
Van Peebles: Well the flashlight.... there was a honorary flashlight and every month somebody got the flashlight.
BP: Do you agree that things are definitely easier for the current Black film makers in terms of fundraising, support, from the major studios?
Van Peebles: I think the advent of Sweetback turned the fortunes around because it showed that there was money to be made. The studios have been more receptive to quasi Black products. I say ?quasi? because most of the time all they really want to do is counter revolutionary. They are more receptive but are they more receptive to the truth that we would like to have said? Not much. They would go along with Black films to a certain point. Black films are normally given a third of the budget of medium white films and even then, that amounts to a tenth of what most other films are given. Plus you have to make certain adjustments in the scenario. I just finished a film with my son which we co- wrote and co- produced for cable on the proviso that they leave us alone to make it. Now that film would be about a fifth of the normal Hollywood star?s salary. But I don?t bother to dwell on the detail of racism. I just look at it globally. That?s all to be said but it is there.
BP: Following from that question, some people argue that the fact that we do face these adversities in our general life does enhance our creativity. Would you agree with that or would you say it actually stifles us?
Van Peebles: Yeah, who said that? Who told you that? You said you heard that it enhances our creativity. Who told you that?
BP: Many people argue this way. As young Black men we sometimes come across this argument among friends and acquaintances.
Van Peebles: Wait, wait wait a minute. Slow down. Some of your friends? Who are these friends? What are their jobs?
BP: I have a lawyer friend, for instance, who argues that because he has to struggle twice or thrice as hard as his white counterparts, it makes him the better lawyer for it. Would you agree with that?
Van Peebles: Well all I can say is that I really have to stay away from speaking for anyone else. Me? no I don?t particularly think so. It is a nice comforting thought but, no I see no reason to think so. Some people might come out better off. Maybe or maybe not, but I don?t think so.
BP: Talking about Sweetback, It was a ground breaker but today, many Black films seem to tell the same old story. It is usually a case of a Black man in the ghetto, he struggles to get out and has problems with the cops and that sort of thing. Don?t you think that it is time that we moved on from that kind of film- making and went on to show other sides of Black life?
Van Peebles: Well most first novels as in first films stay very close to home. It will be hoped that as the film makers branch out, they won?t just repeat the same story. But I think that the young white boys and girls have an opportunity to tell their first story themselves and I think our kids should have the opportunity to do this too. And also none of this happens in a vacuum. They have to get funding and it also depends upon who funds you. And you have to make a distinction between the independent film of which is a very expensive medium and the studio films because in the final analysis, the golden rule is that who has the gold makes the rules. Take Panther - it took 15 years to have that film made because the studios would have asked for a film that would have been just as distasteful as the ?hood movies. And they did ask us ?could we drop this bit here?? ?Could we drop the bit about the FBI?? etc. etc. and I refused to do that and I couldn?t get the movie made on time.
BP: I am surprised because film- makers like Spike Lee tend to get away with making the kind of films they want....
Van Peebles: Hold on a second. Let me stop you there. Film makers like Spike Lee? What other film makers like Spike Lee? You are implying that there are others like him?
BP: Well I assumed that it was very easy for Spike Lee to get his way in making films like Do The Right Thing and I am surprised that given this, you faced such a hard time in doing Panthers.
Van Peebles: Well perhaps my films are a little bit more unrelenting than some of the other film makers?. I make comedies, love stories etc. but the unrelenting films are pretty unrelenting. And you have to be very careful. There is always an exception to the rule and then people turn to that exception and say he is the rule. You said film- makers like Spike Lee. Who else? There are exceptions to the rule who then are touted to make us all believe that it is the same for all the other film- makers. I mean I would say that Spike Lee is probably the most powerful - at this point in time - Black film maker and I do not think that Townsend or the Hughes brothers or any other Black film- makers have that same amount of power. You can?t point to him with his autonomy as being universally held by other Black film makers and that?s why I question you when you say ?like Spike Lee?. Only Spike Lee can do that. The other film makers don?t have the same autonomy, they don?t have the same variables in the equation, you follow me? Me personally I would see Sweetback as probably more unrelenting than any of the movies that Spike Lee has made. It can be considered more dangerous than his work.
BP: I would go back to some of your earlier works. Certain journalists have, to my surprise, described you as the inventor of Rap music. I say ?to my surprise? because I believe that rap music originated from the street. Do you accept this or are these journalists simply supposed Niggerologists (to use your own term) who probably heard anything close to rap, for the first time, during your performance and therefore erroneously concluded that you invented the music.
Van Peebles: Well, are you familiar with my music?
BP: I am not, I have to admit.
Van Peebles: Well that puts you at a distinct disadvantage. For example Gill Scott Heron credits me with one of his methods and styles of music that I did pre- Gill Scott Heron. And there was also the last poets. Then it came to LL cool J, then it came to KSR- 1.... there was this whole trajectory that then led up to NWA etc. etc. and they are referring to the very first of this style. This was 1969 and they had never heard anything like that. That was the beginning of rap. And at that time they didn?t even know what to call it. So that was the street and from there I started this new musical format and that format was then evolved to what is now modern day rap.
BP: I have to say that I am not conversant with your music but I had read about this in an publication and I just wanted to hear it directly from you.
Van Peebles: Well, for example, take probably the bible of all music publications: - in America anyway - Billboard magazine. It was the Editor- in- Chief of Billboard magazine who, when he looked up the roots of the rap, traced it all back to me. He looked at people like Nelson George and traced it all back me. This was even pre- Sweetback. I am known in various fields. Theatrically, I did the same thing that I did cinematically. I ran the first Black show on Broadway run by Blacks etc etc. So its not inaccurate to say that I created rap music. It is just that once again because of the unrelenting nature of the work, it was not freely passed overseas and so when somebody from overseas sees a more diluted version, he would say ?What?s this all about?? Do you follow what I mean? It?s the same as somebody saying that I am the father of modern Black cinema. When Spike says, or other people in the music business say, where they got it from, other people who have never seen Sweetback would say ?what are they talking about?? Do you follow what I am saying?
BP: Well if Gill Scott Heron actually did trace rap music to you, I would have no choice but to accept that because many rap artistes name him as the main influence on their music.
Van Peebles: Yes, Gill Scott Heron and the Last Poets. Yes
BP: Despite the ground- breaking work done by blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback?s.....
Van Peebles: No, no I?ll have to stop you there. Sweetback was not a blaxploitation film.
BP: Wasn?t it? Quite a few people have described it as that.
Van Peebles: No, no, no. Stop. Stop. You said it was described by some people? Describe my arse! You?re talking to me, not them. I?m telling you. What happened was that the blaxploitation films were a direct descendant of Sweetback. There is no doubt about that. But Sweetback itself was not blaxploitation. The studios then were not going to lose out on the money I made through Sweetback, so they created this kind of counter- revolutionary style which became known as blaxploitation. That does not make Sweetback blaxploitation.
BP: Okay, but if we may digress a bit, do you actually agree with the term blaxploitation to describe films that were derived from Sweetback?
Van Peebles: Well once again this is a term that is used .. it is like when you say there is a riot in the ghetto. It is an uprising, not a riot. But just by the use of the terminology, you bracket the whole thing. No, I won?t call them blaxploitation but that seems to have become a term that people can understand and agree with. In many ways it is a derogatory term. When they make white films and they make money, they don?t call them whiteploitation. Do you understand me?
BP: Well, what the original question was meant to lead to was that some Black people argue that they would like to see more films where we are portrayed as lawyers, doctors and, you know, this Huxtable- type family rather than films that help stereotype us as sex gods or violence people. What do you have to say to people like that?
Van Peebles: I think they are very justified in saying they would like a wider spectrum but the wider spectrum also requires financing which is run by the studios who have their own vested interest in just doing something cheaply and stupidly and also degrading in many ways to Black people. So its they who rule the highway and many times so many of the younger people and some of the older people do not have the finance. They do not have the money in the bank to resist those demands.
BP: In the 60s, it was easier for you as a Black man in Europe, given its better acceptance of Black people, to achieve much more as a film maker than in the united States. Just one generation later, Black film makers and indeed Black people in most other walks of life in the United States, have far outdone their Black European counterparts. You have worked on both sides of the Atlantic, so how do you explain this?
Van Peebles: Don?t forget that the centre of film-making is America right now and so that puts them in a unique position for all the racism that exists there. England does not have a huge film industry right now.
BP: As you know, we are still struggling to create a Black British film industry. It is virtually non- existent at the moment. Do you have any plans to work with and assist British Black film makers or do you think we should make our own way just like you did?
Van Peebles: Well, I am not sure? What do you think I could do?
BP: The Black British film industry is virtually non- existent so any assistance will be a starting point. There are Black British film makers who would be happy to tap into your skills and knowledge.
Van Peebles: Yes but in America only a tiny part of the industry are owned by Black film makers. And, you see, I am not sure what you think the industry is.... I would be very interested to make a film here but to make a film you have to have all the resources and money etc. etc etc. Me coming does not bring that.
BP: But as a marketable film maker, it certainly would help...
Van Peebles: In what form? If I say ?okay, I want to make a film?, what?s the what?s the first step. You got to get the money, right?
BP: Yes, but what I am trying to say is that we have nobody of your stature in this country and your coming here would certainly give us a better chance of getting financing.
Van Peebles: The question is an intriguing one you see. I am not being argumentative, don?t misunderstand. You see, if I were to write to whatever studio and say I wanted to make a film, they won?t do it.
BP: I am, not saying that you would definitely bring the finance, but without doubt, people with your experience can make a difference and if you thought you could make a difference and you were invited here to do a Black movie would you be willing to?
Van Peebles: Of course, I would!
BP: So far we have been privileged to see Van Peebles the Novelist, Actor, Film Maker, Stockbroker, Composer Airforce Navigator. Can we expect some new work from you soon or are you just going to call it a day after this?
Van Peebles: Well I don?t know. I?d like to make more films. I?d like to do theatre here, but once again I would have to start from zero just like anyone else. The accolades will not bring finance and resources with it automatically. It helps, but between help and getting it is a major gap.
BP: If you did what you did it with Sweetback several years ago, I don?t see why you should not be able to do it today. If anything, it should be easier. You went through such great difficulties at that time to produce Sweetback.
Van Peebles: Yes, but you see, there?s one thing. I knew the terrain and anybody who is fighting a guerilla war tries to get the army on their turf where they know which tree to go behind etc etc, do you know what I mean? I knew the terrain well enough to say ?Okay I am going to shoot and watch where they can?t come and...? I don?t know this terrain, you understand what I mean. And there?s a whole part of that that comes along with it. But it?s not impossible. Its an intriguing idea. In fact I would love to do something here and, like I did in the States, give all these film makers the opportunity to learn their craft and that?s how I broke the union. And that?s how Sweetback started. And that?s the good and bad of Blaxploitation films. Even though I thought they were counter- revolutionary, they also at the same time gave many Black film- makers the chance to learn their craft.