Mario Van Peebles came to Hollywood to act, but soon found the scope of what young men of color were being offered limiting. Not one to complain without taking action, Mario started calling “action” literally and became a director. In 1991, Van Peebles directed his first feature New Jack City. Rather than make “reactive cinema” and cast all his New Jack cops as black, he made them a multicultural group and cast as a female as the lead prosecutor. “I feel you can make compelling cinema without marginalizing anyone,” says Van Peebles. “Life may challenge you with some isms, look-ism, rac-ism, sex-ism and class-ism, so be prepared to change the game and don’t let it cost you your sense of humor”. New Jack City became the most profitable hit for Warner Bros. that year and the press hailed it as a “modern-day gangster classic.”
Van Peebles followed up with his multicultural Western Posse (1993). Next, he directed and produced Panther (1995), teaming up with his maverick filmmaking father, Melvin Van Peebles, who also wrote the script. Panther is the story of the Black Panther Party’s rise to power. The film became a political classic, stirring up controversy and winning awards that include the Locarno Film Festival’s Silver Leopard award.
Van Peebles was becoming known as a filmmaker whose work provoked thought, sometimes controversial but always with a point of view and a visual signature. In 2004, Baadasssss!—Van Peebles’ odyssey about the making of his father’s groundbreaking film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song—became one of Ebert and Roeper’s ten best movies of the year. Like his father, Mario produced, wrote, directed and starred in the independent film which he shot in 18 days. His coming of age dramedy We the Party (2012) was a music-centric family affair in which he got to work with his kids, father and hip-hop artists like YG and Snoop Dogg. Some of his other features include Redemption Road (2010), All Things Fall Apart (2012) and USS Indianapolis (2016), the controversial story of the sinking of the Indianapolis during World War II, starring Nicolas Cage.
Van Peebles’ latest feature Armed (2018), with William Fichtner, Ryan Guzman and CNN’s Van Jones will be released soon. It is a thriller about a heavily armed “good guy” with multiple guns and a flawed moral compass. Sure, to be controversial, Armed takes place against the backdrop of the rising outrage over mass shootings, and alarmingly is inspired by real events.
As an actor Van Peebles got his first major break in Heartbreak Ridge (1986), opposite Clint Eastwood. Using money from the role, he funded his first short film. Soon after he was directing and starring in episodic TV including his own series, Sonny Spoon for NBC. In 2001, Van Peebles received critical acclaim for his portrayal of political icon Malcom X alongside Will Smith in Michael Mann’s Ali.
Born in Mexico City and raised in Europe, San Francisco and New York, Van Peebles is a graduate of Columbia University with a B.A. in Economics and a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Hofstra University. Van Peebles is passionate about supporting education and eco-consciousness through media. With his reality show, Mario’s Green House, Mario again teamed up with his family. The show chronicled the Van Peebles clan’s often-humorous attempts to raise their eco-consciousness as they try to go green in materialistic Hollywood. “We never got to full green, more like olive green,” jokes Van Peebles. With “Bring Your “A” Game”, Van Peebles encouraged young men to resist the pop culture of anti-intellectualism and to educate themselves beyond conventional academics. His documentary, Fair Game? (2010) explores the idea that the prison industrial complex is a form of modern day slavery and socioeconomic apartheid.
Van Peebles directed night two of the historically more accurate and re-imagined miniseries Roots starring Forest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne. He also acted and directed in various other series including Bloodline, Lost, Boss, Sons of Anarchy, Empire and Damages. Van Peebles recently created, co-wrote and starred in Superstition a Netflix sci-fi co-venture. Superstition is about a powerful southern family with unusual gifts and is credited with helping to bring diversity and inclusive cultural mythology to the horror thriller space.
As a content creator, Van Peebles believes in three loves: “Love what you do, love the folks you do it with and love what you say through your work.”