In “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass!” Mario Van Peebles plays tribute to his dad, pioneer black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles.
The movie dramatically recounts the saga of what his father went through more than 30 years ago when Melvin decided to go against every grain in American filmmaking to make his breakout hit, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song.”
Mario gets inside his old man’s skin as he plays the single-minded, obsessed filmmaker, who let nothing — not demanding creditors or cops throwing his camera crew in jail — stop him from making his indie film. Mario doesn’t hesitate to show the cost of that single-mindedness not only to his dad’s family and colleagues but to his dad’s own health.
The movie is also, of course, a tribute to the spirit of indie filmmaking everywhere. As it is still a challenge to get audiences to support independent films, getting audiences to see an indie movie about the making of an indie movie is that much harder. Yet this is an entertaining film and certainly an eye-opener for young blacks, who may not realize what one black man had to go through to create one of the first indie films to show black people in ways that Hollywood never did. More festival exposure should pave the way for a theatrical release of this film in art houses, urban cinemas and perhaps even mainstream theaters.
Following the success of his directing debut, “The Watermelon Man,” made for a Hollywood studio in 1970, Melvin decides against all conventional wisdom to make a movie about a black street hustler turned revolutionary running from racist cops. And the only way to do this is with independent financing. He doesn’t stop there, though. Melvin insists on a multiethnic crew. To throw the then-white unions off the scent, he pretends he is making a porno.
A filmmaker's hard road
Every step is an uphill battle: raising money, crewing up, losing financing, recasting when SAG won’t sign off, running out of money, then refusing to submit the film to the all-white MPAA ratings board, meaning an automatic X rating. After sinking his heart, soul and family money into the project, Melvin discovers that only two theaters in the United States will play such a film.
Encouraging Melvin are his white co-producer Bill (Rainn Wilson), his long-suffering secretary Priscilla (Joy Bryant), Clyde (David Alan Grier), a black porn producer anxious to break into films where people wear clothes, his Latino B camera crew operator Jose (Paul Rodriguez) and his even longer-suffering girlfriend, Sandra (Nia Long).
Melvin drives everybody hard and himself worst of all. Even losing sight in one eye doesn’t slow him down. When he needs a young boy for a sex scene, he enlists his Afro-ed 13-year-old son Mario. Here the now-grown Mario takes a moment to make the subtle case that this may not have been his dad’s greatest idea, but he forgives his father under the circumstances.
Other moments in the screenplay by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty get a little preachy. Audiences will understand what a ground-breaker his father was and how institutional racism worked against making the film without the need to hammer these themes home constantly in the dialogue.
The film’s depiction of the world of guerilla filmmaking and the political, sexual and social revolutions sweeping the country in the 1970s is well drawn thanks to designer Alan Muraoka, cinematographer Robert Primes and costumer Kara Saun. Peebles captures his dad’s indomitable spirit, but playing one’s own father cannot help being a self-conscious affair, perhaps more caricature than character study. The other actors deliver witty, vigorous performances that nicely reflect an era when American filmmakers seized their own destiny and made personal films, even when their own sons say: “Who’s going to want to see that?”