There was a point in time where there were so few African-American filmmakers, you didn’t even one hand, let alone a full set of fingers, to count them all. In the late 1980’s, Spike Lee made a huge impression, a black filmmaker whose works were made for black audiences, though they were so good, they found universal adoration. Otherwise, there was also the occasional (and mostly uninspired) comedy from Sidney Poitier, an annual, spirited farce from Michael Schultz (ranging from “Car Wash,” “The Last Dragon” and “Disorderlies”) and the lone directing efforts from Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. I may have missed a few but really, there were almost no black filmmakers in the late 20th century.
Film historians may mark the change being the arrival of Lee’s powerful, headline-grabbing and still potent “Do The Right Thing,” but I would say the landscape altered with Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s “House Party” in 1990. While a teen comedy, that stylish, hip hop-fused farce crossed over in a large way (newspapers nationwide noted how it “came out of nowhere” and had a giant per screen average) and became a substantial sleeper hit. A year later, Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City” similarly “came out of nowhere” and took American by storm. The only indication that it was coming was the popularity of the soundtrack, particularly Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” which became an ubiquitous radio hit before the film arrived.
When “New Jack City” opened against the Michael J. Fox comedy, “The Hard Way,” no one expected it to break out like it did. Instead, a massive opening led to consistently strong box office, critical praise and box office nearing $50 million. The film played far outside of “urban markets” and became one of the surprise hits of the year. Not long after Van Peebles’ film made its mark, along came Bill Duke’s “A Rage in Harlem,” John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood” and Matty Rich’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” all coincidentally opening in the same year. The arrival of independent African-American filmmakers, making personal works that were all critical and box office hits (as well as Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”) made 1991 a landmark year.
In his breakout role, Wesley Snipes stars as the flashy but vicious Nino Brown, a career criminal whose years-in-production drug empire creates a crack epidemic in New York City. Among those assigned to take him down are an edgy cop (Ice-T), his savvy, unlikely partner (Judd Nelson) and a crack addict named Pookie (Chris Rock) who knows how to enter Brown’s nightmarish crack den.
The street language may dated and the message is always dealt with the heaviest of hands but the filmmaking, from the first scene to the last, is excellent. There’s a real snap, a pulsating energy, to each scene. “New Jack City” can get silly at times but it’s still as exciting as you remember.
Snipes is a sensational villain; in Snipes’ hands, Nino Brown is a master showman. Rock’s turn as Pookie is one of the film’s best and the character is the heart of the film. Like everyone else in the cast, Rock occasionally goes over the top (his comic instincts sometimes kick in at the wrong time) but he gives the part everything he’s got. Rock and Ice-T are consistently impressive. The rehabilitation of Pookie is one of the most affecting subplots. Van Peebles has a small supporting role and is such a charismatic presence, he should have cast himself in a larger part. Nelson initially seems out of place but also acquits himself well, as do the R+B and hip hop artists in the supporting cast. Bill Cobb is especially affecting as the neighborhood voice of reason and has a knockout final scene.
Although it’s a work of fiction, the portrayal of Brown’s creating the crack epidemic and establishing his empire is involving. Van Peebles clearly was inspired by “Scarface” (which turns out to be Brown’s favorite movie, of course). The use of cop and gangster movie clichés to address serious social issues is mostly successful. At one point, Brown cannily name drops James Cagney and George Raft. Later, a shoot out in a factory features stylish lighting and staging that suggests a neo noir approach to gangster-ism.
Subtlety is not welcome here. At one point, Judd Nelson tells Ice-T that, regarding drugs, “they’re not a black thing or a white thing…they’re a death thing.” The line could have been the tag line on the movie poster. Nelson and his co-stars deserve credit for reciting the sometimes ridiculous dialog with a straight face. The problem isn’t the dated street lingo but an earnestness that is so heavy handed, it almost verges into self parody.
Over time, the success ratio of independent films from black filmmakers began to dwindle, as there became an oversaturation of violent ‘hood movies. In the same way, the initially promising arrival of the so-called “blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s waned with too many subsequent films that were sub-par and marred in bloodshed, offering little more than cheap thrills. Still, as one of the earliest and finest of the lot that included (among its best) “Menace II Society” and (among the worst) “Talkin Dirty After Dark,” Van Peebles’ film still shines. If “Boyz N The Hood” is the ultimate trendsetter, the “Shaft” of its day, then “New Jack City” is certainly the “Superfly” of the 90’s, a claim even Nino Brown would appreciate.
Today, African-American filmmakers such as Lee Daniels, Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Steve McQueen, Kasi Lemmons and Antoine Fuqua remain important, impactful and essential to the cinematic landscape. Van Peebles never made a movie as good as “New Jack City” again but he, like his father Melvin, made a distinct mark and cleared a path for future generations of black filmmakers. Both as a landmark work of African-American cinema and as a 1990’s crime drama, “New Jack City” still hits hard and remains a valuable work.