Van Peebles: It's Not Easy Being 'Green'

Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, along with his family, takes a lighthearted approach to going "green" in a new reality television show on cable network TV One. "Mario's Green House" follows the Van Peebles as they try to build a home that's environmentally friendly. Mario Van Peebles describes the project and spreading the green message within communities of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

He is a filmmaker, actor and director, and a family man who wants his family to be happy. And what they think will make them happy is a bigger house with enough space for two parents, five kids and the occasional, frisky granddad.

But he is also becoming aware of how new building and design affects the environment. How does he reconcile his family's desires with his new eco-consciousness? That's the premise of the new reality television series, "Mario's Green House," starring Mario Van Peebles, his wife, Chitra, and their family, including his father, the legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. And it premieres this Sunday on TV1. Mario Van Peebles is with us now from the reasonably green studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Mario Van Peebles, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES (Filmmaker): Good to be here.

MARTIN: All right, let's set the premise. Your family has outgrown or is outgrowing the family home in L.A., and after some tweaks of your conscience, you decide to go green, first with a completely new house and then with a large addition. So how did you get the idea to turn this into a television program?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Okay, so let's flash backwards a couple years. What we try to do as a family is balance things out. So we have our little junk food sometimes, but we also have your food with, hopefully, a little more nutritional value - or we like to think - and we do the same thing with cinema.

So we'll go see the sort of junk-food movie du jour, the big Hollywood blockbuster. But after, we see our nutritional-content movie, and the nutritional-content movie of the time was "Inconvenient Truth."

So I go there with the three boys, the two girls and Chitra. We get out of there, and they were all sort of down. And one of my kids looks up and me and says, you know, you guys ask us to clean up our rooms, to clean up the living room, but you haven't really left us a clean planet. And the other kid kicks in and says: And I'm almost 13, and I haven't even had a cocktail yet, and the world's going to, you know, implode on us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: And so I sort of thought about: Is it possible to take something, a colossal downer like climate change, and put it in a pop context and do a TV show on it? Because we were sort of, we had just bought this house, and we thought - we considered - we wanted to add more to the house and sort of see if we could learn how to go green and in essence, get paid to do our home movies, and that's what we did.

So the first episode, we have Ed Begley come on, and my mother's always compared me disparagingly to Ed because Ed is super-green. We're sort of remedial green. If this were college or high school, he'd be like, AP-class green. We're, like, borderline olive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's funny. Your mom is kind of the unseen voice of conscience on the other end of the phone. I don't know if she makes an appearance in the film later, but she's on the phone always, like, hectoring you to kind of…

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, and that's her role. I mean, she does that - my mother and I hitchhiked to Altamont when I was a kid, to see the Rolling Stones. She's always the earth mom. My dad was like, the political guy. He, you know, interviewed Malcolm, and he knew the Panthers, and he was always sort of pro-civil action and social justice, and my mother was sort of eco-justice or eco-karma.

So that - sort of growing up with those two folks, those two voices, and this was the one where, you know, Mom finally said, you know, Ed's family - Mario, Ed's family, they have no trash. They complete the loop. They recycle. They do it all right.

So the first episode, we have Ed Begley and his family literally come inspect our house and give us a grade. And we learned a lot. Each episode deals with something different. One is water, one's recycling, one's getting out there and being active in the community.

MARTIN: It's interesting because you talk about the facts that your parents represent kind of dualities, but the series does meld those two ideas. It does put the idea of green into a black and brown context, if you will. And I want to just play a short clip from the first episode, where you're telling your family an unusual bedtime story, and here it is.

(Soundbite of television program, "Mario's Green House")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Everyone's all tucked safe in their beds, but this green thing put a bug in my head. OK, gather 'round. I'm going to read you one bedtime story, and then you all got to go to sleep, OK?

Once upon a time, the world was clean, and the people upon it seemed to keep it green. Africans, Eskimos, Aboriginals, Islanders, Native Americans and more, all spiritual people that knew the eco-score.

Unidentified Man #1: We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Then along came the colonizers, brazen and bold, and they took all the land for conquest and gold.

Original people got pushed to the side as the Industrial Revolution with its factories arrived.

Unidentified Man #1: Is it going to be green?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Huge ships crossed the ocean, planes with immense wings, as we all turned into consumers intent on buying things. We all want more money, we buy and we sell. But our mountains of trash continue to swell.

MARTIN: Now some people might say, wait, hold up, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hold up.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Is that your usual bedtime story?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No. But it does, I mean, on the one hand I think a lot of people will appreciate the idea that you're trying to get away from the notion that the only people who care about the environment are white yuppies, you know, in their sandals. And you think that's really a fair analysis of kind of the way everything has transpired? If you look at a lot the places of destruction right now, it's countries in the developing world trying to catch up to the West...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...and our standard of living.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Absolutely. We've all bought into it. I mean, here's the thing. I majored in economics. I went to Columbia and worked - the Koch administration for a while in the Department of Environmental Protection, thinking maybe I could make a little green difference early on. And what I quickly realized was, it would be very difficult in government. And then, so I sort of said, let me go do what I really want to do, which is acting and directing, and see if I can get back to it. And so here I am, sort of getting back to it.

But indigenous people lived in harmony with nature: black, brown, white, yellow, probably some green people, but they lived in harmony with nature, and we bought into this notion with economics that you could have an ever-expanding GNP. You could have consumerism that would keep growing and yet have finite resources. And I think we made a mistake in that we never really counted the true cost of something.

So there's - for example, this book in front of me. There's paper here in a book. Well, what's the true cost of that paper or cardboard? Well, what's it cost to cut down this tree, get some guys to log it, turn it into pulp, mush it around, you know, bleach it - because we want it to be white - and do that, and loosely, if I understand that, and labor, and then I get the cost of what that paper should be. But what economics never counted was, what was that tree doing for free?

And that tree was giving us oxygen. It was providing a home and a forest and possible medicines and cures for things we don't even know about. And so we never really counted nature as having a cost. And now, we're breathing 14 percent less oxygen - I think that's what the number is now. So, whether we're Republican or Democrat or black or white or rich or poor, we have to share this planet.

There's a great quote that I'll mangle for you - I'm fond of mangling quotes - by Dr. King, where he says we either learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we perish together as fools. And what I would add to that is, we either learn to live together as brothers and sisters in harmony with nature, or we perish together as fools.

And so what I wanted to bring was, if we could go back to the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people and sort of tie in and say, well, now we've got technology here, so we've got sort of modern technology that can jump us ahead, and wisdom of ancient people - if we can combine that, we're in a great place to do something about it.

But definitely, there's a side to this that's interesting in that in the minority areas or the low-income areas, which are often black and Hispanic, they get hit first and worst. When Hurricane Katrina comes and climate change hits and those levees break, who gets hit first? When the cell towers are there or the toxins are put under the earth, what neighborhoods do those go in? They don't go in Beverly Hills. They don't go in the rich neighborhoods. So a lot of it is folks not understanding how this does affect us, and people of color, in a huge way.

MARTIN: Let me jump in just to say, if you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we are speaking with filmmaker Mario Van Peebles about his family's efforts to go green and build a more eco-friendly house and create a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Their efforts are depicted in the new reality television series "Mario's Green House." It premieres on TV One this Sunday.

You know, speaking of trying to make going green fun, one of the fun things about this series is watching your kids try to work you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And here's a clip. It's one of your sons, Michalo(ph), and he's desperately trying to get a new laptop...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...for which he prepares a PowerPoint, and here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mario's Green House")

Mr. MICHALO VAN PEEBLES: And do you know that I would be more productive if given this new laptop? Now, this is what Michalo would do with his time. Notice how hassling with computer right now is taking up most of my time. I can't be eco-friendly as much. And Dad, I want to let you know that my hanging out with Dad session is very low right now.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Hanging out with Dad would go up to...

FAMILY: Ninety.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Ninety percent?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: And we're questioning, where did he get these stats?

MARTIN: Where did he get this data? I don't want to take away from the suspense. But can I ask - did it work?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. He got the computer.

MARTIN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's true. Another fun presence in the series is that of your pops...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Melvin Van Peebles, and he's a little unwelcoming to the guy who comes to do an energy audit of the house. Let me play a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mario's Green House")

Unidentified Man #2: Hey man, you know that couch you're sitting on isn't that eco-friendly.

Mr. MELVIN VAN PEEBLES (Filmmaker): Son, how would you like a carbon footprint up your butt?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah, that's Dad. That's real. That's Dad. But you know what was cool, working with the family and letting them really get to know my dad in a work - environment where they're being themselves. So part of it is about a family going green, and a part of it really is about a family in Hollywood and sort of in that environment, seeing if you can make this work.

And it's pretty cool because we live in a neighborhood, the Baldwin Hills neighborhood, which is, you know, predominately African-American, and it's interesting because I think in certain communities there's a little bit of a mistrust of the dominant culture, because we were taught, you know, well, asbestos is really good. It's cool. And then we, you know, we're the last ones to learn, no, asbestos really probably isn't so good. And so by the time you get enough money that you can buy that Lincoln Navigator, you're being told you should have a Prius, and you think that somehow this doesn't apply to you. But it totally, it applies to all of us together.

MARTIN: But there are a lot of people who say, this is yuppie stuff. It has nothing to do with me.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Right.

MARTIN: And at a time when many people are just struggling to stay in their homes, let alone try to figure out how to convert them to more environmentally friendly entities, I just wonder if you worry that your message isn't going to get across? People are still going to think, this has nothing to do with me. I'm just trying to stay in my house.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Right. Some people, first of all, don't understand that going green can literally save you green, i.e., money. There were things that we did that brought our water bill way down. There were simple things that didn't cost that much, some that cost more and some we just said, you know, five kids going to college, we're not going to do that right now. But there were things that we were able to do that clearly saved us money. For example, we brought solar tubes in, which go down the story and can, you know, literally suck light from the sky down into a dark, lower room. So there are things like that.

But part of it is true in that, I was spending some time in Hawaii a while ago, and this guy I was talking to said, when the Westerners came here, they said we, you know, we weren't wearing enough clothes, they wanted to live in the hills. So they moved us down to the beaches, and we sent our kids to their schools to learn how to beat them at their own game. But they came back wanting two Benzes and a flat-screen TV like everybody else. So he sort of said, now they're coming here and they want to wear no clothes and they want to go organic, and we're all hooked on the chemicals now. And they want to live at the beaches, and they're moving us back to the hills.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: And so it's sort of, we're in this place where, you know, it creates a little bit of animosity because they said like, we're - you know, they're now recognizing the ancient wisdom of the people and maybe, you know, we were living in harmony with nature and not cutting up the land.

MARTIN: You're trying to get people back to their roots in a way...

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Trying to get back...

MARTIN: ...and helping them see that it was.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Exactly. So part of it was to get people back to their roots and say, look, it's not so much about learning from the Al Gores and the Ed Begleys as much as it is about remembering the wisdom of the ancient people. Your grandmother knew how to do something with baking soda. If you just look in family history you'll find out, OK, people over here in Europe knew how to do something very simply that we forgot how to do. And a lot of it is going back to remembering that ancient wisdom, remembering how to live in harmony with nature, and then sort of seeing if we can combine that with the tech savviness of today.

MARTIN: Your family's featured in this. I know that's one of the attractions of it, is watching your very beautiful family, I have to say. On the other hand, you know, some of the reality shows these days have not - families have not fared well in this experience. And there's one, particularly, that's a headline grabber now, a tabloid headline grabber. Did you have any hesitation about this?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I did, and I didn't. I mean, I thought part of it was actually good for us, too, was that - you know, show a family that is sort of functionally dysfunctional. We're all mixed up. We've got every color - my mom's white enough I could use her as a reflector board. My dad is African-American, so we have the Obama mix. We've got Indians in the family. And so part of it was showing, you know, a world family that's evolved to a world view and gets the joke about themselves. And that was part of it. So you know, we're very straight-up about it.

MARTIN: You were a child actor who famously appeared in your father's sort of signature work. Now, I had a chance to ask him about that, about using you in the film at that age, particularly in the way you were used. And I asked him about it and he said, well, you know, it wasn't a democracy. I'm trying to get things done here. Do you mind if I ask you how you feel about that?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: No, absolutely. In fact, I did a film about it, "Badass," where I played my dad, and someone else played me. And I got to play the chess game from his point of view. You know, he was going through - you have to go back to where he was. When he did "Sweetback," you weren't even allowed, as a black person in cinema, to have facial hair. It was considered too overtly sexual or something, I guess - I don't know.

Anyway, so when my dad did "Sweetback," remember the peace and freedom part - sort of had their movement reflected in movies, a little like, if you will, "Easy Rider." But the black power movement hadn't been put on screen yet. And so he created - he was fighting a war and literally, there were people out to kill him. He broke the unions - remember, he had the first multiracial crew in Hollywood. So what I remember from that experience wasn't playing young Sweetback losing his virginity...

MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, I guess what I'm asking is, what does that have to do with using a young child in a sex scene? You think that was OK?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I wouldn't do it. And again, I had a whole list I went through with my dad. But I am a different guy at a different time. I don't know what - why people - what drew them there; I couldn't say. But that wouldn't be my taste, as a filmmaker. I wouldn't do that to any of my kids.

MARTIN: And finally, just to end the conversation where we started, you mentioned that part of what motivated this is that you and the family, the kids, your wife, went to see "An Inconvenient Truth" and everybody, they left the theater feeling kind of bummed out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you - how do you feel now after going through this experience?

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: I feel like we learned a lot and that, you know, it's trying to pass some of it on. We're still in a learning curve. You know, I'll never be the full Ed Begley my mom might want me to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: So I'm not an avocado yet, you know, the black on the outside, green on the inside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: But we're learning. We're learning and we're having fun doing it. And you know, they said one of the number one reasons people buy Priuses is because of what it says about the driver. So whatever gets you in the eco house, whether it's watching our show or Ed's show, or whatever makes it work, we need to make it work, and we need to make it work for tomorrow.

MARTIN: Director, producer, actor, writer Mario Van Peebles - his reality television program about going green with his family, "Mario's Green House," premieres this Sunday on TV One. He was kind enough to join us from NPR West in California.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. Good talking to you.

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