We the Party - SideReel Review
When Mario Van Peebles directed his first feature film in 1991, he had a powerful familial legacy to live up to -- his father Melvin Van Peebles, one of the first African-Americans to direct a major studio picture in Hollywood, made arguably the finest and certainly the most provocative blaxploitation movie of the 1970s, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and he rewrote a few of the rules of low-budget independent filmmaking along the way. Mario’s New Jack City, if not as bold or formally innovative as Sweetback, was an admirable, engaging effort in combining full-bodied entertainment with a strong and unapologetic sociopolitical message. While Mario Van Peebles hasn’t made a film quite as good as New Jack City since, his body of work as a director has been full of admirable attempts at fusing a daring vision of African-American life with colorful storytelling, and if the inconsistencies of Posse, Panther, and Baadasssss! (a docudrama about the making of his father’s legendary movie) prevent them from being complete successes, they’re also the kind of stories few other American filmmakers have tried to tell. We the Party finds Mario Van Peebles moving into particularly accessible territory with a story of teenage antics at a Los Angeles high school, but it’s also a richly multicultural film that deals with the politics of American life, along with grades, dating, prom, and the pesky curse of virginity.
We the Party stars Mario’s son Mandela Van Peebles as Hendrix Sutton, a junior at an L.A. high school whose student body is divided between upper- and working-class African-American students, with a healthy smattering of whites and Latinos folded in. The school also has a performing-arts curriculum, so there’s plenty of music and dancing along with the three R’s. In addition to the usual trials of high-school life, Hendrix has to deal with the fact that his divorced parents are both on the school’s faculty -- his father (Mario Van Peebles) teaches history and civics, and his mother (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) is the principal. Hendrix is trying to live up to his father’s academic expectations while working at an after-school business that throws all-ages hip-hop parties. Hendrix, of course, also has girl troubles -- he’s crazy about beautiful and smart Cheyenne (Simone Battle), but she’s a senior and is perceived as being out of his league; plus, her dad is a cop with a reputation for making life hell for her potential suitors. When his dad decides he needs tutoring, good fortune smiles on Hendrix -- he’s able to persuade Cheyenne to help him with his studies if he’ll help her with a documentary she’s making for a class project, and if they both do well, she’ll go to the prom with him. However, plenty of complications appear along the way, and it doesn’t help that Hendrix and several of his friends have made a bet on who can lose their virginity by prom night, a wager that comes back to haunt him.
An awful lot happens in We the Party’s 104 minutes, with characters and storylines constantly bobbing in and out of the main action, and sometimes you wonder who that kid with the skateboard is or why those girls with guitars keep showing up. Ultimately, the film plays like a socially conscious fusion of House Party, Fame, and American Pie. But if some of the story feels a little obvious and the political philosophizing is more than a bit heavy-handed, Mario Van Peebles’ script and direction shows a genuine feel for the messy and joyous realities of teenage life. He also draws some fine performances from his cast, which includes several of his own kids, including Mandela Van Peebles as Hendrix and Makaylo Van Peebles as his prankster friend Obama. If Simone Battle’s Cheyenne isn’t quite as well-drawn as one might hope, she certainly has the charm and beauty of any guy’s dream prom date, and the film includes solid supporting performances from Moises Arias as Hendrix’s scrawny, motormouthed buddy Quicktime, rapper YG as a 20-year-old student named CC who’s trying to put his checkered past behind him, and Snoop Dogg and Tommy "Tiny" Lister as CC’s menacing brothers. We the Party bites off more than it can chew, both in terms of thematic ambition and the sheer bulk of characters and subplots, but it’s smarter, livelier, and more engaging than the vast majority of its peers. Considering that most movies about teen life struggle to avoid making the audience think too much, it’s nice that We the Party strives to be more thoughtful than it really needs to be.