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 City was 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…