New Jack City
Directed by Mario van Peebles
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Chris Rock, Vanessa (Estelle) Williams
It’s the second Black-directed “Hood Film,” behind only 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Hood Films often employ hip-hop/rap soundtracks and deal with themes such as racial discrimination, police tensions, drug trafficking, and youths attempting to escape the trappings of poverty. Many feature heavily Black casts, but there are some notable examples that include Hispanic, Asian, and White Americans.
Many film historians believe Hood Films are the convergence of the 70’s Blaxploitation genre with Gangster Films such as Mean Streets.
New Jack City makes no bones about heavily referencing Scarface, and its specific vision of late 80’s New York definitely influenced East-Coast rap culture in the 90’s and 2000’s. “New Jack Swing,” the R&B/Hip-Hop fusion of the 90’s prevalent in the styles of Michael Jackson and Doug E. Fresh, was coined after the title of this movie. Additionally, Lil Wayne’s monster-selling album series Tha Carter is based off of the main apartment building in the movie.
This film is best known for the breakout lead roles of Ice-T and Wesley Snipes. Chris Rock additionally won critical acclaim for his role.
This month’s theme, more than others, took time to materialize. I knew I wanted to explore black cinema, but didn’t know which specific sub-genre. The more I looked, the more I kept seeing phrases like “dated portrayals” and “good for the time it was made.” Having reviewed content like this in the past, I had a feeling that these older films only had Black people in front of the camera.
Oof… A film student like me shoulda known: A Black person didn’t direct a widely screened Hollywood movie until 1969. While a few more Black people broke in during the 1970’s, the Black-American experience only began to be told by Black directors in the mid-1980’s.
Finally, I found my sub-genre:
During this time period (and, in numerous ways, today, too), many Black communities were reeling from drug, gang, and police violence. These filmmakers wanted to create socially conscious films that reflected American urban reality and called for change.
Frustratingly, many aspects of these films have been reduced to clichés, perpetuating the now 35-year-old stereotype that all black people are either born in the ghetto, belong to a gang, or deal/use hard drugs.
This is all a digressive way of me saying that the lifestyle within these films is not a monolithic representation of the Black experience, and only parts of it are current today.
New Jack City is one such film, and, like many crime films before it, unintentionally made a kingpin’s lifestyle look really cool by giving him amazing costumes and a charismatic performance.
New York City, 1986–the war on drug has only escalated gang conflict, and Nico Brown, leader of the Cash Money Brothers (CMB), collects money from his debtors… over the side of a bridge. G-Money, his blood-brother-in-crime, has tweaked cocaine’s formula, creating “freebase,” A.K.A. crack-cocaine.
Needing to rapidly expand their drug business to meet demands, they take over an apartment building called “The Carter.” Three years later, they make $1 million a week from suffering addicts.
Needing to push the boundaries of playing fair in order to take Nino down, desperate detective sergeant Stone puts together a team to get evidence from within the operation. Officers Scotty Appleton and Nick Peretti are the only ones wild enough for the job. They, along with recovering undercover addict Pookie, attempt to rid the city of this new drug jacking up the minds of its citizens.
$1 million a week buys a lot of power, though, and Nino Brown doesn’t play by the rule of law.
Although this is a fictional story, there are Nino Browns in every major city in America. If we don’t confront the problem realistically—without empty slogans and promises—then drugs will continue to destroy our country.
This is the final title card that is shown before the credits. While many who watched the film at the time likely felt the gravity of these words, my reaction was, “Oh, no! This movie was serious the whole time?!”
Upon further reflection, I think my main problem with New Jack City is that the movie tries to have it all: it’s a tragic character study of Nino Brown, an epic crime saga of the CMB gang, a copaganda piece glorifying the 1980’s NYPD, an excessive action movie, and a socially conscious think piece. The best part? It’s all wrapped up in the cartoony art style of Batman & Robin.
Frustratingly, there’s just not enough room for everything Mario Van Peebles is trying to say. As a result, many of the film’s plot points get shortened into painfully telegraphed moments, specifically when Nino and G-Money enjoy their wealth while watching Scarface. Another is when Pookie has to go undercover, treating the viewer to a montage of “crack temptation scenes.” Because the film has to get to the big raid, Chris Rock’s brilliant performance gets sped up to laughable parody. Late in the runtime, we also get Officer Peretti’s motivation. Raised as white trash, he was once an addict himself, so he’s seen what drugs can do, no matter the color of the addict. It’s a powerful point worth exploring, but Peretti’s only job thus far has been taking pot shots at Pookie’s addiction and acting like the equivalent of a snotty little brother asking to be drug along when Appleton goes out with his friends. Whatever point Peretti’s trying to make gets buried by the avalanche of plot the movie climbs through.
If New Jack City was made today (and, Lord, Warner Bros. is trying), it’d undoubtedly by a prestige television miniseries. In this format, the audience could better feel the mounting dread of Pookie’s addiction, or Appleton and Peretti could explore the universality of drug addiction with more realistic conversations, or Keisha could reach the amazing potential of sadistic lieutenant that she’s always meant to be. (Sidebar: Vanessa A. Williams, both here and in nearly every film she’s in, is criminally underused.)
At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but appreciate this film for what it’s trying to do. By chronicling the CMB gang, New Jack City attempts to warn its audience about the root evils behind the drug trade, and even radically suggest that all drugs should be legalized (a solution that’s had positive results in other countries). Additionally, Mario van Peebles was given the opportunity to make a socially conscious, independent film. That means he got one shot, likely faced numerous restrictions, and probably felt pressure to play to as wide of a base as possible so that investors would see a return, making a Black directed film both popular and profitable.
New Jack City, then, is a time capsule, for both better and worse. It’s entertaining and wildly dated in its presentation, which ironically adds to the fun–but its final message isn’t meant to be fun… because it’s still true.
There’s a quadratic equation I could probably calculate, creating a parabola where a person’s age is the x-axis and their enjoyment is the y-axis. This curve would increase the older a person gets, as New Jack City would no doubt scratch every nostalgia itch Gen-X has. The curve would similarly increase the younger a person is because this movie is one hell of a vibe and the memes still hit. In the middle, though, dipping into the graph’s cringe quadrant, are the millennials. All of Gen-Y’s older siblings and cool cousins tried and failed to emulate this film’s costuming and confidently held cinder-block-sized cell phones to their ears like they were gangster. And you KNOW 90’s suburban kids bumped this soundtrack in their Mercury sedans on their way to Mervins California, thinking that this music “spoke to them.”
This movie never reaches unwatchable, though, no matter the audience. One aspect singlehandedly corrals this sprawling saga: Wesley Snipes’ performance as Nino Brown. I know the stodgy Academy wasn’t ready for him, but damn if the man didn’t deserve an Oscar nom for this movie. Only a virtuoso of an actor can sell “Sit your $5 ass down before I make change!” and make the audience yelp instead of laugh. Only a man in the eye of a maelstrom can wear the same outfit as Grace Jones in A View to a Kill and come across as a real person and not a Dick Tracy villain. Only a genius can evoke razor-wire tension in a scene where his acting partner is Ice-T. He’s long overdue for a comeback, and, unlike Nino Brown, I hope his peak still lies in the future.