Mario Van Peebles On A 'Post-Racial' America

After Wednesday night's State of the Union, there was renewed talk of being in a post-racial America. A new documentary, Fair Game, airs Sunday on TVOne and it questions that very thesis. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mario Van Peebles, the director of the documentary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

TLC: the 250th episode of the TLC hit "What Not to Wear." That's in just a few minutes.

But first, as we've discussed, President Obama gave his first formal State of the Union address this week. And while most people knew Obama's first year in office would not be an easy one, many Americans still hope his presidency would usher in a post-racial era. Now, public opinion poll still show that Americans, in general, and African-Americans in particular see his presidency as a sign of the door of opportunity has opened.

But some believe it has opened all the way, to the point where they have lost patience with African-Americans who are not achieving.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAIR GAME"))

Unidentified Woman: I'm not racist. I'm just tired to hear the black people complain. Obama's election proves it. It's a fair game.

MARTIN: That's the opening of a new documentary called "Fair Game" from filmmaker Mario Van Peebles. And it asks: is it really a fair game for black men in America? The film features provocative interviews with a diverse array of black male scholars, celebrities and other public figures giving their perspective on that question. And it premieres Sunday night on the TV One cable network, and filmmaker Mario Van Peebles is with us now from NPR West. Welcome.

MARIO VAN PEEBLES: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: I should say welcome back because we last heard from you about your last TV One project called "Mario's Green House," which was about your efforts to go green with your very cute family. It had a serious subject, which is just how hard it can be and how much thought goes into going green. But it had a very lighthearted air. This is a very different project and I wanted to ask what drew you to this.

VAN PEEBLES: Well, I guess, you know, it's interesting. I kind of grew up with that sort of cool '60s "I'm with the band" mom who is always on the, you know, sort of, had an eco-consciousness. And then with my, you know, politically active - the risk of sounding Sarah Palin-ish - mavericky dad, who was always involved, you know, in what was happening with the Panthers and who, you know, did the first black power film in the '70s, "Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" actually. And so, I guess it's sort of both sides in my family.

And really what's interesting, all these things actually interconnect. If you sort of treat the environment in sort of this mechanical, industrial way that there's a disconnect between man and the environment, it's very easy to treat people that way.

MARTIN: The film spotlights a number of dire but familiar statistics about African-American men, the disproportionate incarceration rate, the achievement gap both racially and between black men and women. It isn't as though we have not heard these things before. What do you think you have added in this film that is new to the conversation?

VAN PEEBLES: Well, I think what is new to some degree is the time. You know, we have an African-American family in the White House. It's got a lot of folks thinking about identity and what's going on, and are we really post-racial, is it now a fair game? And in, you know, one of the things we examined was tests where they sent out applicants for jobs. And we found that the white guy with the exact same credentials as the black guy - except for the white guy had a prison record and the black guy did not - the white guy got more job interviews with that prison record.

MARTIN: The film puts a lot of emphasis into talking about the high incarceration rate and what effect it has on the African-American men in particular...

VAN PEEBLES: Right.

MARTIN: But I want to play a short clip from somebody named Glenn Martin. He's an ex-offender who is now the vice president of the Fortune Society, that's an organization that advocates for greater opportunities for former offenders. This is something that I must say was new to me...

VAN PEEBLES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...having spent a lot of time reporting on these areas. He talks about the whole, the impact of having to pay huge arrearages for child support for men who've been incarcerated...

VAN PEEBLES: Right.

MARTIN: ...who clearly, while they were incarcerated, were unable to earn income, and here is what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC))

GLENN MARTIN: When you're in prison that don't stop. You still pay child support. You can't afford to pay it, so what? It builds up. Now, you walk out, you owe like 50 G's in child support arrears. And you don't usually owe it to your baby's mother, you owe it to the state. And the state is not willing to forgive that. They're like: you owe every penny of that 50 grand. So some cat gets a job, he goes to work. Two weeks later, child support kicks in. He's like, man, I'm not doing this, 60 percent of my paycheck going towards child support and she is not even getting the money, my baby not even getting the money.

And then some cats say, you know what, she did that. She put me in that situation. I'm not even dealing with her. So, that just totally removes the person from even thinking about getting the family back together and doing the right thing and seeing if he could work it out.

MARTIN: The reason I'm highlighting this is he's not the only person to say that there are just sort of systems that are in place that keep people in a hole. And once they're in that hole, it's very hard to get out of it.

MARTIN: You're making excuses and the trick here is not to get in that hole to begin with. What do you say to that?

VAN PEEBLES: Correct. Okay, so this is a very good point. And this is the danger with, you know, when you get folks like myself who can make a living directing and that's great. But I got here because I'm educated, that's the truth. And I had a dad who, you know, saw to it that I was. What happens is it creates a dynamic where people don't look at social responsibility. They only look at personal responsibility.

Yes, as an individual, it's, you've got to get up there and do your best and get out there. But I'll tell you what. My kids are going right now to a private school. They were at a public school for a minute.

There is a public school, you know, not too far from us that if you go to that public school, your diploma is worth next to nothing. So you could be the best kid at that school and you would not be prepared, when you got out, to go to any college. There is definitely places in America where if you're born into that environment, your chances of getting out are really, really limited.

MARTIN: The film makes an interesting - has an interesting conversation with itself about the role of black celebrities in framing the larger national conversation about African-Americans in general. But I want to play an interesting clip from Chris Rock...

VAN PEEBLES: Okay.

MARTIN: ...that's kind of a response to the idea or a challenge to the idea that black celebrity in and of itself is just positive. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAIR GAME"))

CHRIS ROCK: Exceptional black people have always kind of been rewarded. Martin Luther King's dream coming true is for mediocre black people to live and succeed in this world the same way that mediocre white people do.

MARTIN: You know, it sounds funny, but he's very serious. He's very clear about what he is saying. What do you think about that? Do you think that's true?

VAN PEEBLES: I absolutely do. I think that there will always be - DuBois, I think, referred to it as the talented tenth. The people that will, you know, will get there. But the thing is the bigger group of us, how do they get across the line and what's the shape of it to come?

MARTIN: What do you think you learned from this? I mean, you've thought about a lot of these issues for a long time. Like President Obama, you have - if you don't mind my using this expression - feet in many worlds. You are biracial, like the president, and you've lived all over the place. You've traveled quite a bit. Did you learn anything from reporting this film that you had not thought about before or known before?

VAN PEEBLES: Yeah. Well, I learned a lot. What I didn't know when I started it was how much mentorship meant. No matter what color you are, if you mentor some little boy or girl, you make a huge difference in their lives because they then model behavior that leads to success versus modeling behavior that doesn't. And I think we have an opportunity and that's why "Fair Game" is a bit also of a call to action. If, you know, if you've got money, you can give it, you can donate.

But if you've got time, and that's the biggest thing, you know, mentor someone. Mentor someone that doesn't just look like you. Let them learn about you and understand you and connect. And I think that's one of the biggest things I learned.

MARTIN: Mario Van Peebles is one of the producers and the host of the new documentary "Fair Game." It premieres this Sunday on TV One. It explores the lives and challenges of African-American men in the Obama era. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR West. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

VAN PEEBLES: Thank you for having me on.

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