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New Jack City is not a hard film to conceptualize. It’s a movie that was made just as the Reagan Era crack epidemic had reached its summit, just as mass hysteria had swept the nation and the public believed that drugs were the number one issue in society. It’s the first film of the ’90s to bring light to the crack epidemic from a widely viewed lens thanks to writer Barry Michael Cooper who spent time watching over the street corners of Harlem (and some of his experiences in Baltimore) like a nighthawk attempting to understand the nuances of drug culture and more. The relevance of a film like New Jack City, from production on to those that fall under its lineage is far more mesmerizing and sophisticated. In short, New Jack City through cobbles of prior films mixing evil, paranoia and the chase of infamy like Dracula and the 1932 version of Scarface became a landmark in terms of giving Hollywood a visual idea of the drug war at large.

It also set a benchmark for independent film helmed by African-American principal characters. The highest grossing independent film of 1991 has evolved into something bigger. Even if it made $47 million off an $8 million budget during its theatrical run ($83 million in 2016 dollars), its worth in terms of legacy can’t be quantified by a dollar amount.

Some may spin the current heroin epidemic that affects various affluent sects of the country as a modern day New Jack but that isn’t completely the case. Whereas one drug is used currently within suburbia, the other was public, created communities of zombies and empowered men to bend others into slaves. Twenty years prior to New Jack City, Marvin Gaye sung of the men who came home from Vietnam broken and dependent on a drug that dulled their lives to a puddled nothingness. “The boy who makes slaves out of men,” Gaye sung on “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”. Marvin ventured into his own darkness in regards to drugs, a walk into a crystalized spiral of despair thanks to the death of Tammi Terrell. The boy still lived in the whatever cracks the sun shed light on; his rougher cousins earned their lifetimes being used in the daylight.

Cooper captured two effects with his essays and articles for SPIN and The Village Voice in the 1980s. The first, published in SPIN in 1986 was a story about a drug epidemic in its earliest bloom, creating characters and types with whom we’ve now associated with the drug as if its part of genealogy. The second, written a year later for The Village Voice spoke to the economics of the epidemic, the creation of teenagers who manipulated the power of the drug to turn themselves into mavens of free enterprise. Regardless of whatever high either side chased, fast money or a fast high, the end result was death. And it operated in a cycle. Future pop culture phenomena such as The Wire and other real life dealers mimicked the capitalism on display in New Jack City. Just as Nino Brown had turned an apartment complex into the city’s largest crack pharmacy, others emulated and believed the same.

Set in 1991, New Jack City made stars out of formerly unsung characters and turned a few men into cultural legends. The film takes a villainous lead, Wesley Snipes and transforms him from a corner boy looking to make big into an enslaver of men via power and a virulent mindset. Snipes’ Nino Brown, loosely based on Harlem drug kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes was flashy, a believer of capitalism and a man who believed he was far smarter than everyone else in the room. His red suits and dastardly smile made him feel more like the Devil, a king who ruled with an iron fist and set aside family (literally, fratricide on ‘Cain & Abel’ levels run deep in New Jack). When you see Nino, he’s flamboyant, he’s cutting and charming. Watching his ascent through various means of power was intoxicating to young black men all over the country. Hip-hop in particular loves Nino Brown, his mannerisms and actions becoming part of the lexicon of life. “Cancel” became transformative, his ultimate victory inside the courtroom was a middle finger to the drug laws crafted by Reagan and later fulfilled even stronger by Clinton. New Jack City never attempted to make a hero out of Nino Brown, it merely made the character a representation of art imitating actual life.

There may have been many who believed they could be Tony Montana, a cocaine cowboy who fell to his own hubris. When kids saw on their corners that being “Nino Brown” was closer in reach, it stuck. The existence of crack cocaine transformed teenagers, boys who had originally been transfixed on masculinity via sexual exploits to men captivated by the spoils of money and anesthetized to the idea of death. Crack eradicated households & communities and much of the typography and imagery in New Jack City reflected that destruction. It wasn’t championing the drug trade or even attempting to fellate the glamorous side of it. To many, New Jack City was akin to the raps of UGK & the Clipse, ambitious and at least honest about the ramifications.

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What New Jack City created for Chris Rock, Ice-T, Snipes and even Christopher Williams was legitimacy. Rock, a fledgling comic at the time had a breakthrough playing Pookie in New Jack, a role he originally hadn’t even won. Martin Lawrence had originally been cast in the role but due to the death of Lawrence’s mentor Robin Harris a month before principal filming began in 1990, Rock re-auditioned and won the part. Lawrence however still remained a fan of the film and even spoofed it a bit in an episode of his eponymous sitcom, “Suspicious Minds”. Williams, whose larger contribution towards the New Jack City soundtrack gave him a #1 record on the R&B charts showed that even in a small bit role as Kareem Akbar, he could at least be serviceable. Cultural significance in regards to New Jack City boils down to three things: the film’s scope of the crack epidemic, its look at Harlem and New York in 1990 and the sound of the era.

It’s a hip-hop movie, a generational one whose branches spread out with pieces of nurturing fruit. You could joke that the film is the sole reason why we were stuck with Color Me Badd in the early part of the ’90s with “I Wanna Sex You Up”. Still, the power and “cool” of the film and time period in the early ’90s crossed over into pop culture and have sustained for numerous decades. The aesthetic and sounds, mixing old school and purposefully obtaining acts like Levert, Flavor Flav and more to play up the nightlife, cool kids who shied away from everything and narrated and more worked.

Yet, something lingers with New Jack City, one that speaks to the overall ethos of the film. The film’s most crushing scene, Nino Brown killing his brother for failing him one too many times begs the question of “am I my brother’s keeper.” Cooper had a theory on this in a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads:

[Looking on], I said to George Jackson, “I don’t know what this movie is gonna do, but this rooftop scene between these two Black men, these gangsters, they’re human now! The love they have for each other as brothers. I’m tellin’ you, George.” That’s the scene people remember to this day.

But as far as “Am I my brother’s keeper” and Black Lives Matter, and where we are now [through Philadelphia], and Chicago, and B-More, and Oakland all of these war-torn cities, it’s a very complex issue, because it goes back to what “Nino” says in the courtroom: “They don’t manufacture Uzis in the ‘hood. We didn’t bring these drugs here. So “Am I my brothers keeper?” is a multilevel question. The answer is “Yes, of course is yes, we are.” But we’ve got a lot of opposing forces outside, pushing against us—and even we’ve got opposing forces that our pushing [from within]. We gotta pull focus and get it together.

The scene was amplified by Snipes himself but the question remains, who protects us in a world that continually eats its young? New Jack City spoke to the predatory nature of life itself, of chasing a high and ultimately losing yourself in the process. We loved The Wire because it analyzed a community and a plague from all angles in a form of Greek tragedy. Some of those original fascinations, particularly within the archetype stemmed from New Jack. The cops, Judd Nelson, Ice-T & Mario Van Peebles were men of the era, willing to bend in order to watch something break. The dealers just kept wanting to get rich and stay a step ahead. Yet they existed in the same arena, the same environment. And every day while we consider the actual keepers of our lives, we’re constantly reminded that we see them every day, both the wolves and the New Jacks.

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