New Jack City: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective By Dart Adams
Twenty-five years ago on this day, New Jack City opened in theaters across America and detonated the “Black Film Explosion” of the early 1990s. In 1991, numerous films by black directors starred black leads, which included Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats and Julie Dash’s The Daughters of the Dust.” New Jack Citywas responsible for initiating all of that, as the film served as Mario Van Peebles’ directorial debut and was produced by George Jackson, Doug McHenry and Freddy “Fab 5” Braithwaite onboard as an associate producer.
Based on an idea and screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper, the story revolved around a drug organization’s rise to power during the Reagan era crack epidemic and the special unit / police taskforce that was trying to stop them. Initially, New Jack City was going to be set on the West Coast, but was later switched to fit Cooper’s Village Voice piece, “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young,” which was published on December 1987. Doug McHenry and George Jackson were so impressed by Cooper’s penchant for cinematic-style storytelling, the duo felt that he was perfect for the project.
Turns out they were right once he finished the final screenplay draft.
Filming of New Jack City occurred between April and June 1990, as the cast was a healthy mix of veteran actors with newbies making their first splash in front of the camera. Most notably, Ice T, already a superstar with O.G. Original Gangster, played Detective Scotty Appleton. Other roles involved comedian Chris Rock as Pookie, a stick-up kid turned crack addict turned informant and Christopher Williams as bank employee turned IT guy for a drug consortium, Kareem Akbar. Starring in the lead role was Wesley Snipes, who played the villainous Nino Brown; Mario Van Peebles, who pulled double duty as director and as Stone, the head of the special police force unit tasked with taking down Nino Brown and his associates. Allen Payne was on the right-hand side of Nino as his lieutenant, Gee Money, and former “Brat Pack” star Judd Nelson rounded out the marquee cast as Nick Peretti, the detective paired with Scotty Appleton by Stone.
In only seven weeks of filming, the cast and crew got everything they needed for Steve Kemper to edit the project into what the world would come to know as New Jack City. Exploring the overall importance of New Jack City and its influence is imperative, as this marked the first mainstream film to really delve into the plague of crack and how it decimated the inner city community. New Jack City reached a much wider audience than Abel Ferrara’s 1990 film, King Of New York, which starred Christopher Walken as drug kingpin Frank White. Where King Of New York was about a gang who sold cocaine and heroin and clashed with rival crews and the police, the project was not exclusively about crack. Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever would use crack’s impact as a B-plot when it dropped in early June, yet New Jack City was different in that crack was the central plot device to fuel the film.
What also made New Jack City different than other film’s within that genre was that Nino Brown’s Cash Money Brothers was able to usurp the drug trade from the Italian Mafia to control the city. Since New Jack City was based on Barry Michael Cooper’s experiences in observing drug dealers and their interactions — it dove deeper than just the surface and made each character into relatable people than just archetypes. That level of depth in a film starring and directed by black people in an inner city ghetto hadn’t been seen since the so-called “Blaxploitation” era of the 1970s. One can thread a line between New Jack City, helmed by Mario Van Peebles, and his father, Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Just how impactful was New Jack City to the world of cinema?! Find out on Pg. 2...
Both films served as the precursor to an explosion of black films and both films were highly profitable independent projects with extremely iconic soundtracks released before the movie. The New Jack City soundtract was the #1 R&B album on the Billboard charts for eight straight weeks (from April 27th to June 15th, 1991) on the way to Platinum sales success. That album spawned several hit singles such as Ice T’s “New Jack Hustler” (#67 on the Hot 100); “For The Love Of Money / Livin’ For The City” by Troop and Levert featuring Queen Latifah (#12 on the R&B charts); Christopher Williams’ “I’m Dreaming” (#1 R&B, #89 on the Hot 100) and Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” (#1 R&B, #2 on the Hot 100).
The New Jack City soundtrack set a precedent for black films that set the mood and spread awareness of the film. So, when New Jack City opened across America, it played in 862 theaters and brought in over $7 million dollars its opening weekend. It placed #2 at the box office, which, when put in perspective, Michael J. Fox’s The Hard Way opened in 1622 theaters that same weekend and made $6.3 million to come in third place. In only four days, New Jack City broke even and was never in more than 905 theaters. Compared to the #1 film in the country, Silence of the Lambs, which was in between 1500-1700 screens and New Jack City was performing as well as Lambs and earning almost as much money ($11,637 per theaters vs. Silence of the Lambs’ $11,714). This astonished many studio execs in Hollywood, as they were surprised that an independent film with a black director, black screenwriter and a black producer was going toe-to-toe with studio films.
New Jack City was winning the battle of the box office, as well as more importantly winning the pop culture war. After its second week at the near #1 spot on the charts, there wasn’t anywhere you could go that New Jack City wasn’t being quoted. Before “spoiler alerts” and Twitter feeds, there was so much about New Jack City that resonated with people from all backgrounds. From the way the music was used in the film to the choice of shooting locations to the costuming — New Jack City became influential to viewers who would become future screenwriters and filmmakers. For these reasons and others, New Jack City had captured the cultural zeitgeist and “crossed over” into the mainstream American landscape. After 108 days in the theaters, New Jack City became the highest grossing independent film of 1991, as well as the project that set the gold standard for the “Black Film Explosion” of 1991 that soon followed.
New Jack City made $48 million dollars after its theatrical run was over, which is the equivalent of $84 million in 2016 dollars.
New Jack City paved the way for a beautiful deluge of black films in 1991. There was Bill Duke’s A Rage In Harlem, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, John Singleton’s Boyz N’ Da Hood, Kevin Hooks’ Strictly Business, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Matty Rich’s Straight Outta Brooklyn. Those films were among the many that black directors helmed that year. By comparison, in the year before, 1990, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Reginald Hudlin’s House Party, Prince’s Graffiti Bridge, Sidney Poitier’s Ghost Dad and James Bond III’s Def By Temptation were the projects out in the market at the time. The success of the films released in 1991 led to a black film renaissance for years to follow, only five years removed from Spike Lee’s debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It.
Aside from the booming commercial success of New Jack City, the popularity of its music soundtrack helped to boost the reputation of some of its participant stars. Ice T, whose first album was critically acclaimed, was cast in six more films in the span of two years. Chris Rock, whose role of Pookie was originally meant for Martin Lawrence, became a Prime Time Player with NBC’s Saturday Night Live all before his comedy album Born Suspect dropped. Allen Payne’s career received a boost after his portrayal of Gee Money, as he received several guest appearances on episodic television before getting bigger roles and ultimately becoming a lead. New Jack City enabled Mario Van Peebles to have quite a run as a director, as well, as he would go on to helm Posse (1993) and Panther (1995) in addition to leading projects like Gunmen (1993), Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994) andSolo (1996). Barry Michael Cooper would go on to write other celebrated works such asSugar Hill andAbove The Rim, which opened a month apart from each other in 1994. That move made him the first black screenwriter in history to have two films produced in the same year.
What is the final mark of greatness for New Jack City after 25 years?! Find out on Pg. 3...
In the 25 years since New Jack City has been made, the film has inspired waves of future filmmakers. Elements of it have been emulated, replicated and in some cases straight up copied more times than one can count. Shows like The Corner and The Wireused inspiration and elements from New Jack City, but found a different way to make it theirs. New Jack City was relatable to so many people because the crack epidemic was everywhere with families growing up, living in or trying to just maintain in an area plagued by drugs, violence and gang activity. Set in 1986, New Jack City highlighted the dark cloud of substance abuse hanging over the black community. Children were being born addicted to crack, showcasing serious developmental issues which gave birth to the term “crack babies. That phrasing referred to not only children with poor impulse control and impaired communication skills, but also young people that grew up in a super violent environment driven by hypercapitalism.
So many people had been living the life for years, as New Jack City captured it all on the silver screen in a way that many who lived outside of the crack epidemic had never seen before. With all the players in front and behind the camera putting in dutiful work, New Jack City is timeless art that many viewers should revisit again and again. It still holds up after two-plus decades and resonates with audiences. If you haven’t seen New Jack City, cancel your plans, watch this film and rock-a-bye to your innocence.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for theSTASHED, NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.