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Mario Van Peebles Continues to Follow in the Family Business
October 20, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Mario Van Peebles says it never occurred to him that he was multitasking when he produced, directed, helped write and starred in the new Syfy horror series Superstition.

He did, after all, grow up as the son of Melvin Van Peebles, who did the same thing more than 40 years ago with films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadassss Song.

“If you grow up on a family farm, you learn a little bit about feeding the chickens, plowing the north 40, taking care of the horses,” says Mario. “It's all part of the Zen of farming.

“And when you grow up with Melvin Van Peebles - or Melvin Van Movies – you learn as a kid to take care of the cables, to be a PA, to be an editor, to do all those things. It’s all part of the Zen of filmmaking.”

Superstition, which premieres Friday at 10 p.m. ET and with which Mario Van Peebles is launching his MVPTV production company, revolves around the Hastings family in the fictional town of La Rochelle, Ga.

The Hastings for several generations have run a funeral home that keeps some of La Rochelle’s secrets, like the one about how a supernatural group called Infernals keeps trying to eliminate the living humans.

Mario Van Peebles plays Isaac Hastings, who has stepped into the role of family patriarch, as did his father and ancestors before him.

Isaac’s mission includes instilling an appreciation for the Hastings family role into his son Calvin (Brad James), who would just as soon not have to deal with all this craziness.

Isaac gets some help from his wife Bea (Robinne Lee, left), and Mario says Bea personifies his goal of creating multidimensional characters.

“Bea is a loving mother,” he says, “who doesn’t hesitate to cock her shotgun when she’s got to play Mama Bear.”

Even the menacing Infernals, though they threaten the lives of every human character we care about, aren’t in it just for sport. Their motivation for getting rid of humans is that humans have been such lousy stewards of the Earth that if they aren’t eliminated, they’re going to wreck the planet for good.

“I like that the Infernals, who would be the bad guys if you will, are coming now to put us human beings in check,” says Van Peebles, “because of our recklessness and how we've not cared for the planet.

“It’s that notion of which end of the telescope you look through, and who then is the bad guy. Isaac and his family have been charged to some degree with keeping the balance. And it's a tricky one because there's no all good or all bad.”

In the same vein, Van Peebles also likes something else about Superstition: that it doesn’t follow the classic horror movie pattern of the heroes becoming dumb as dishwater at critical moments.

“They're not doing stupid things,” he says. “Sometimes in horror movies people do stuff you would never do. [In real life] a character would never go back in that haunted house looking for the kitten. He'd be, like, I'll come back tomorrow.”

Instead, he says, he and his team formulated the story by kicking around questions like, “What would the Obamas be like when the cameras go off?

“If you took a family that was a pretty tight family, had a lot of love, smart family, if they had to deal with Infernals and demons and fight the forces outside, what would that family look and feel and sound like?”

For one thing, it might look like real-life America.

“The world is getting more diverse,” Van Peebles says. “America is getting more diverse. So this fictional town has an American Gothic kind of quality.

“You take Italian immigrants and Africans who maybe didn't come voluntarily and Native Americans and Asians and Jews from Europe. You put us all together, and you get sparks. But out of those sparks, you get great art and great music, because it’s a cultural melting pot.

“And these different demographics bring their own sort of old country superstitions that also evolve into the fabric of America.”

The result on the screen, says Van Peebles, is designed to be “a lot of fun, and hopefully, provide a little nutritional value along the way.”

As for his father’s role in shaping Mario’s artistic vision, Mario says a lot of it was that early osmosis.

“I watched him do everything, and I thought that’s what filmmaking is,” says Mario. “I didn’t know any better.”

When Mario said he wanted to go into the business, he recalls, Melvin told him, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”

It wasn’t immediately helpful, but Mario started working in theater, got roles in shows like Roots and movies like The Cotton Club and by 1991 was directing his own film, New Jack City.

By then, he said, he was appreciating his father on multiple levels.  

“He’s gone through a lot,” Mario reflects. “This is the cat who started directing when there were no black directors. He went to Columbia Pictures and said I want to direct movies. They said, ‘We don't need elevator operators.’

“But he never got bitter. He has a great sense of humor and gets the joke of life.”

He went out and made movies anyway.

“The Van Peebles are kind of like the Jacksons without the talent,” jokes Mario. “We just get in there, and we’re scrappy. We make it happen.”   

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