06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Melvin Van Peebles's 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song helped change how Hollywood portrayed blacks. But his greatest legacy, says his son Mario, came a generation later, when a new wave of black directors charged down the trail he had blazed. "After Melvin did what he did, myself, Spike [Lee], John Singleton, the Hudlin brothers, we said, 'We want to do that,' " says Mario, 47, who found his own fame when he directed and starred in 1991's New Jack City. "I'm proud of what this cat did," he says, laying a hand on the shoulder of his father, 71. "That's a big thing, to be proud of your dad."
It's even better when you get to show it in the movies. Mario's new movie, the film-festival hit Baadasssss!, examines the trials Melvin endured while writing, directing and starring in Sweetback, the story of a black man on the run from crooked cops. The surprise hit launched the "blaxploitation" era that saw blacks move from being cast as butlers and bug-eyed sidekicks to action heroes such as John Shaft and Foxy Brown. "Before Sweetback, it was the same old 'okeydoke' from Hollywood. The only black star was Sidney Poitier. Melvin opened a lot of doors," says Singleton, the director of Boyz N the Hood and 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Mario plays his father in Baadasssss!, which is based on Melvin's autobiography. He says the role was "better than therapy"—and an emotional journey. "I watch this picture and go, 'Oh, that's my dad' " he says. "But there are things I do in real life when people will say, 'Oh, that's your dad.' I can't tell you how many layers there are." The actor-directors (Mario's last major role: portraying Malcolm X in 2001's All) certainly share the charisma gene. "Melvin is like a slap. He makes you notice him," says longtime friend Ossie Davis, who appears in Baadasssss! "Mario has that spark like his father, but he commands your respect because he's so in control."
Typically hard-boiled, Melvin says he loved Mario's movie but isn't into introspection. "I never really reflected on what I had done. In the morning I get the paper, I look in the obituary column. If I don't see myself in there, I get up," he says. But he does have a softer side: Though Melvin insisted on charging Mario $2,000 for the rights to his autobiography, soon after he spent twice that treating Mario's kids Maya, 11, Makaylo and Mandela, both 9, Morgana, 6, and Marley, 5, to a Caribbean vacation.
Cash was not flowing so freely when Melvin was making Sweetback. After Hollywood studios rejected the script, other backers—including Bill Cosby, who loaned him $50,000—kept the film going. But the $500 check Melvin gave the then unknown Earth, Wind and Fire to record the film score "is still bouncing," he says. Melvin also wanted half his crew to be minorities—an impossibility because the unions were all white. So he pretended he was making a pornographic film, which didn't require union workers. He also recruited family members—13-year-old Mario played young Sweetback losing his virginity. Getting naked didn't bother Mario. "We were sort of like the Addams family anyway. I was used to being a real different kid."
Before making Sweetback, Mario hadn't spent much time with his father. He lived in Europe, Mexico and San Francisco with his mother, environmentalist Maria Marx (who was divorced from Melvin in 1963). "My mom took me around to plays and theaters, traveling all over Europe. She showed me the world. [Dad] showed me the array of humanity. He taught me, like his dad taught him, how to survive," Mario recalls.
Melvin, a Chicago native who worked as a painter and cable-car grip before teaching himself moviemaking in Europe, told Mario to learn about business, so he majored in economics at Columbia University and worked as a financial analyst in the New York City mayor's office before following his Hollywood dream. "The business side of show business is key," Mario says. "Do you want to be the Fat Boys, or do you want to be Quincy [Jones]? I wanted to be Quincy."
The never-married Mario, who lives alone in L.A. spends as much time as he can with his own kids (from three past relationships). He totes them to Nepal, tennis and skiing lessons, and his film sets (Mandela plays an angel in Baadasssss!). "I want to make sure they have a work ethic," he says. Now writing another autobiography, Melvin, who is the author of numerous plays and books, splits his time between Manhattan and Paris. He has worked with Mario many times through the years, including acting in the Mario-directed '93 western Posse. In each other they have found the perfect supporter—and scapegoat. "If my stuff sucks, I blame my father," says Mario. "If his stuff sucks, he'll blame me."