The son of African American director/writer Melvin Van Peebles, Mario van Peebles made his acting bow in a small role in his dad's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). At the time, Van Peebles had no burning desire to become a performer, choosing instead to study economics at Columbia University. He wavered between a financial and an acting career before becoming a full-time actor with the 1984 film Cotton Club. In 1988, Van Peebles starred in a conformist TV comedy adventure series, Sonny Spoon, playing a glib private eye with a predilection for elaborate disguises; this brief series afforded him his first opportunity to direct. Three years later he made his film directing debut with New Jack City, a film widely praised by some as being a truthful, no-nonsense dissection of inner-city life, and widely derided by others as merely a slick outgrowth of the "blaxploitation" flicks of the 1970s. Van Peebles played a major role in New Jack City, as he would in his subsequent Posse (1993), a revisionist western about a Utopian all-black community. Van Peebles' next directorial endeavor was Panthers (1995), a recounting of the Black Panther Movement that came under fire from several of the real-life activists depicted in the film despite the fact that Van Peebles steadfastly defended it as historically accurate.
In addition to making and starring in his own films, Van Peebles occasionally appears in the films of others. He had a starring role in Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and for his performance earned an NAACP Image Award. On television, Van Peebles has starred in a number of prestigious productions, including The Emperor Jones for PBS and The Pool Hall opposite James Earl Jones. For this latter role, Van Peebles was nominated for a Cable ACE award. For his work in Children of the Night he received a Bronze Halo Award. He has also directed episodes of television series, notably those of producer Steven J. Cannell. For directing the ABC After School Special: Malcolm Takes a Shot, he received a nomination for a Directors Guild Award. In the late '90s, Van Peebles joined a growing trend and starred in an elaborate CD-Rom game for Sony called Solo in which he played an android superhero with a human learning capacity.