Written by | Ray Cornelius

I had the distinct pleasure of talking recently to actor and director, Mario Van Peebles about his new film, We the Party. So much was said during our 30-minute interview that I literally had to create a part 2 story expanding upon his views regarding black imagery in film, how music–particularly hip hop–has been a third character in his family’s films, and why New Jack City is still relevant 20 years later.

On black images in television and film…

You know at least 50% of our young brothas are dropping out of their high school class. “We the Party” at its core is about a Black male student trying to get his G.P.A up. He’s not trying to learn karate or stomp the yard or rap his way out of his economic situation, he’s trying to get his grades up. And that’s a really great image for us to have. If we show images of ourselves as gangster rappers, pouring out champagne and throwing dollars in the air and other people see those images then after a while they may believe that’s all we are. Or that’s the majority of what we are. You have to have counter programming. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with humor, there’s nothing wrong with gangster rap. But if you don’t have counter programming, then we slowly start to believe this about ourselves. And then they believe that about us and we begin to play into the narrative that of being as stupid, ignorant, and dangerous and full of self hate as they think we are.

On the importance of music in a Van Peebles’ film…

I think black folks are an auditory culture. We came over to this country listening to the drum in a very specific way. The drum had a rhythm and it talked and would say things to us. And then the drum was taken away. They didn’t want us to be able to talk about them. But all of that rhythm didn’t die when they took our instruments away. We’ve infused it into other areas of who we are. It’s in the way we walk, they way we play basketball, the way we dance, the way we pepper our food. Because we were giving scraps from the master’s table, we had to put some African rhythm on it. And so then we invent soul food, Gospel, Hip Hop, rock and roll, rap, bluegrass, and country. All of it has African rhythms underneath it. So when you have that kind of relationship with music then you take it with you in your films. My dad did it with Sweetback and I did it with New Jack City, we just made music a third character in the film because that’s a part of who we are.

On the power of rap or hip hop music…

Rap music has the potential because it is spoken word to be really powerful. Over the years, we’ve been trained to drain all of the political implications out of rap. But in early Public Enemy when brothas was talking about “Fight the Power” or when NWA said, “You’d rather see me in the pen. Then me and Lorenzo rollin in the benzo.” Rap can be used to say some profound sh*t!

Here is a excerpt from one of the rap songs used in the film, “We the Party”:

“Did I pass or fail? Graduate or go to jail? Who writes the test? Who defines success? We all want to win, play ball and rap but when that doesn’t happen there ain’t no going back. You dropped out too young now you’re busting caps. You may call it blue and red but its black on black cuz the more we drop out the more we go to jail like voluntary slaves expected to fail. Listen up brutha. You need to understand that being truly educated ain’t apart of their plan. We got tricked again, slicked again, held back and flipped again…”

On the relevance of New Jack City 20 years later…

One reason the film is still relevant is because even though we don’t have poppy fields in the ‘hood.’ Even though we don’t have gun manufacturing in the ‘hood,’ we have a lot of Black folks going to jail for that stuff. And they should if there in it. But you have a lot of other folks making money higher up who handle the logistics and getting it into every city from Chicago to Atlanta to LA. I think it was Dick Gregory who said “that you can find a drug dealer pretty easy, how come the cops can’t?” Inner cities are allowed and still allowed to be self cleaning ovens. You know? Failing schools equals successful prisons. Wherever you have failing schools, you have a lot of great prisoners coming in the mix. And that’s free labor once again. So I think it’s unfortunate that the situation in New Jack City where you have the gangster profiting from the influx of drugs is still alive and well. I think until we really examine legalization and all of these other possibilities as long as we are allowing the inner cities to medicate themselves, New Jack City will be relevant.

Check out Mario’s latest film, We The Party in theaters now!