Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” is a lot of things–a docudrama, a social commentary, a story of Hollywood triumph against the odds–but first and foremost it’s a family affair, a son’s attempt to understand, and show his respect for, his father. The picture’s based on Melvin Van Peebles’ autobiographical book about the making of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” his 1971 film that was revolutionary in both content–it featured the first black ghetto hero, a stud who retaliated against racist cops and nonetheless escaped punishment–and mode of production–it was independently financed and shot in guerilla fashion with a non-union, multi-ethnic crew. Melvin starred as well as writing and directing (and raising all the budget), and he even cast the then thirteen-year old Mario as the lead character’s younger self. Shunned by the studio distribution system (the suits had wanted him to make another more accessible movie along the lines of his previous comedy hit “Watermelon Man”), the picture opened in only a single theater in Detroit, but word of mouth made it a huge hit and it eventually became the biggest-grossing independent picture up to its time, feeding into an untapped urban audience and initiating what came to be known as the blaxploitation genre.

When Mario, who’d been directing features like “New Jack City” and “Panther” for more than a decade, decided to celebrate his father’s three-decade old accomplishment on the screen, he recalled, during a recent Dallas interview along with Melvin, how he approached his father to acquire the rights to his book. Melvin said yes, but, Mario remembered, “he said, ‘Don’t make me too damned nice.’ And what he meant by that was, ‘Stay true to the spirit, I trust you with it.’” (Melvin also made him pay for the adaptation rights–as well as for rights to use clips from the original film in the new one. “Business is business,” Melvin explained, chuckling.) Mario continued: “Once he said, basically, ‘I trust you, make the movie you want to make,’ from that point on the voices came to me. It’s almost like the movie came to me. Literally I’d wake up at five in the morning, the voices would come, I’d write down the ideas and I would figure out how to channel it and what to do with it and how to go into the proverbial looking-glass.” But, he added, “I wasn’t making ‘Sweetback,’ I was making the story of a guy with an impossible dream to make this very difficult movie and insisting that the cast be all of us.” He recalled the effect the experience had on him as being central to the project, too: “[As a boy] I started to see a guy that was standing for something,” he said, “when my dad started to lose his sight and lose weight and insisted on using a multiracial crew and not just going for a studio movie where he would have made a hell of a lot more money and be safe making ‘Fried Chicken Man,’ or whatever.”

Once he’d finished the script and took it to studios, however, Mario came up against a brick wall not unlike the one his father had faced more than thirty years before. “What happened was that I sent it to the studios, and I got back those sorts of studio notes that tend to, I feel, sometimes homogenize certain pieces. Sometimes those notes work, but that’s sort of film as commerce, and this, I thought, was film as expression. So I found I had to make it in the spirit of the original–so I wound up with eighteen days to shoot the movie, and no hotel–I had actors staying at my house….I knew I had to have final cut with this [movie] in particular. Because (1) it was historical, so you had to be accurate with that, (2) it’s about someone I respect a lot, (3) that person happens to be related to me, and (4) I’m not only playing him but directing the movie while I’m playing him, the very environment I’m making the film in sort of kept me in Melvin’s proactive mode. My dad’s life was multi-racial and sexy and political and funny and tragic–and that’s what I wanted to make, and I had to make it in the spirit of the original. It’s kind of interesting to really walk a mile in your dad’s shoes and play his position on the chess board. I’m walking in those shoes, I understood him more. I respect what the guy stood for. That’s what the experience taught me. And I wanted to do it while he could still see it, so if he didn’t like it, he could at least kick me in my bad ass. Good or bad, it’s not a committee film. What you see is a movie that was made from the heart, made the way I wanted to make it.”

Melvin, chomping on his omnipresent cigar, offered the film, and his son, the highest praise. “Last night we showed it in Houston,” he said, “and the audience just understood it from old to young, rich to poor, black to white. The human heart has no frontiers. It’s just about doing what you’ve got to do. People find what touches them as human beings [in it], and that makes it an inclusive film that goes across color.” The message, he remarked, is one everyone can relate to: “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s about how many times you get up.” Mario took up the point by recalling that back in 1971, when Melvin involved his young son in a project which might very well collapse, he was asked, “‘What if he sees you fail?’ And my dad says, ‘Well, I do sometimes, and he’s got to learn to fail, because otherwise how do you learn to get up?’”

Melvin also complimented his son on his decision to avoid studio interference with his vision by going the independent route, as he himself had done with “Sweetback” decades earlier. “Everybody doesn’t have his courage or his tenacity or his willingness to forego the big money and do it independently,” he said. “The film really is authentic to the book. And the book is authentic to what happened.” And with an impish smile he added, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

“Baadasssss!” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.