*A quarter century may have passed since “New Jack City” invaded movie theaters, but the classic crime thriller remains relevant today with regards to Hollywood’s diversity dilemma.
In fact, a worthy source to tap for guidance could be “New Jack City” director Mario Van Peebles, who had a diverse mind state in constructing his embodiment of a new type of cop to take down Wesley Snipes’ ruthless drug kingpin Nino Brown. To hear Van Peebles tell it, a squad of new jack cops was needed for the job. A group that reflected the community they served.
“One of the things that I remember is when the producers and I talked about in a movie where there are cops, where it’s not only a new jack gangster, but a new jack cop. What would that world look like because in the parallel universe, the police commissioner was often portrayed in film, up until then, as the black guy, sort of past his sexual prime and he wasn’t on the forefront of the action,” said Van Peebles, who also starred in “New Jack City” as Stone, the leader of the police unit that put an end to Nino and his Cash Money Brothers (CMB). “He wasn’t the sexy cop. He was the one that said to the guy that got to shoot his gun and save the girl, “Do it by the book or I’ma have your ass,” in regards to that police commissioner who was the black dude.
After having a good laugh with the producers about reversing the traditional white cop and black police commissioner roles to make the cop black and the commissioner white, the seeds were planted for Van Peebles, who went home and took a look at his family wall.
“I thought about all the folks in my family. I got every color and every flavor in my family,” he recalled. “And I went back and I said, ‘Look. To do that, that’s just a get back move. That’s not a get better move. That’s a do unto them as they’ve done unto you move. That’s not a do unto them, as you’d want them to do unto you move. That’s not a get up, that’s a get even. I don’t want to do a get even. I can’t do that.
“So I said, ‘Here’s what I’m gonna do. If you want kids to say no, you gotta have role models to say yes to. So for the new jack cops, I’m gonna get my Jewish friend Judd Nelson, badass white boy who he has to do it with. I’m gonna get my other friend Russell Wong, badass Asian dude, great looking Asian brother. Get him in there,” Van Peebles explained.
“And then for the other cat, instead of letting him be the gangster like I know he wants to be, I’m gonna have him be the cop and that’s gonna be the brother Ice-T. And so my new jack cops will be White, Asian and Black. I’m not gonna whine about diversity in film because diversity, to me, is not just black folks. It’s all of us. it’s Indian, it’s Native American, East Indian, Asian, gay, straight, male, female. It’s all of us. Dr. King said we either all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we all parish as fools.”
Van Peebles’ angle paid off in a big way. Released on March 8, 1991, “New Jack City” was based on Barry Michael Cooper’s 1987 Village Voice story, “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young,” which focused o the rise of prominent late ‘80s crack cocaine gangs like the Chambers Brothers.
Along with Van Peebles, Ice-T, Wong, and Nelson, “New Jack City” featured an all-star group of supporting players that included Bill Nunn, Vanessa Williams, Christopher Williams and Allen Payne as CMB gangsters Duh Duh Duh Man, Keisha, Kareem Akbar and Gerald “Gee Money” Wells, respectively. Other prominent stars included Chris Rock as Pookie, a homeless crack addict turned police informant who is later killed by the CMB after relapsing, and Michael Michele as Selina Thomas, Nino’s girlfriends.
Like the movie, the “New Jack City” soundtrack followed suit with an eight-week stint at No. 1 on the Top R&B Albums albums chart as well as reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 with hits such as Williams’ “I’m Dreaming” and Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and Levert and Troop’s Queen Latifah-assisted “For the Love of Money/Living for the City.”
In the 25 years since its release, “New Jack City” has ingrained itself in pop culture, the most notable example being Lil Wayne naming his classic series of albums named the Nino’s base of operations The Carter and taking the nickname Lil’ Nino. Taking things a step further, the movie’s Cash Money Brothers served as the inspiration for Cash Money Records co- founders Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams naming their label after the collective.
While the movie world is populated with gangster tales, Van Peebles took a different turn by bringing the effects of drugs on its victims to forefront. As a result, the actor-filmmaker felt like he had “something explosive” on his hands with “New Jack City.”
“Part of my concern was that crack is a killer in the community today and I wanted to make sure to show all sides of it,” said Van Peebles. “In most gangster films, you watch two hours of a guy with family values that just happens to be a gangster and maybe cuts off a horse’s head or he kills somebody along the way, but he’s a guy with family values. But you don’t identify with the victim because the crime remains victimless.
“Part of what happens in a gangster film is you emotionally connect with the gangster, which makes it OK to be the gangster because you never understand the victim and see what the victim of that lifestyle becomes and what that narrative is,” he continued. “In the complexity of a gangster film, I wanted to also let you get a little hit and make you care about what went on with the victim. Part of the trip with ‘New Jack City’ was what Chris Rock did by playing one of the victims who gets addicted to crack.”
Pookie’s struggle with drugs was something moviegoers clearly felt. So much so that Van Peebles remembers how the audience openly voiced their concern for the character.
“When he gets addicted and he’s undercover, man, we had kids stand up in the movie theater yelling out ‘Just say no Pookie! Just Say no! [laughs],” he shared. “So they started to root for him not to do drugs in the context of a gangster movie. And although some people were drawn to the Nino Brown, which you always get, when he got shot they people were like ‘Hell yeah. Shoot that motherfucker.’ [laughs]
“And Ice-T says ‘You can’t deal drugs to kids in our neighborhood. You can’t sell this poison to our children. I don’t care what your rationale is. That’s not gonna fly. That’s not gonna work.”
The protector role proved to be a great motivator as Van Peebles’ used it to garner a great performance from Ice-T and Snipes, with making the situation personal for both men and their characters.
“There was some heavy stuff where we went all in. I like when movies, to some degree, is a tennis match where your villain and your hero are sort of light and dark sides or positive and negative sides of the very same cinematic coin, if you will,” Van Peebles said. “I went to Ice-T and said ‘Listen. You’re the king of the jungle, baby. Even your hair with the dreads, you’re like the king o the jungle. This is your world and you gotta keep your world safe and you gotta make sure that the future is these children and our youth.
“So Ice-T is always in black, but he’s always kind of shot in natural light. It’s books around him and lights and laughter. And Wesley also is always in in black, but he’s got dead things around him. Stone and gold and metal,” he added.
“So then I went to Wesley and said ‘Man, you the king of the jungle. You’re like the black panther cat. You rule this motherfucker. [laughs]. It was like ‘I want you to play it not like a bad guy. But that one scene where he’s at the table with all the guys. I said ‘this like if the panthers had been heavyweight dealer, think of it like you’re Huey Newton. [laughs]. If you watch that movie again, you’ll be like ‘damn’ if you could see that. it’s almost like that element gone wrong.”
To add more motivation for Snipes, Van Peebles brought in an interesting metaphor to “The Player” star’s portrayal. One that may cause people to take another look at the way Nino handled his business at The Carter.
“The other metaphor was I said… and Wesley to some degree is almost like the villain is like in this one, it’s like the vampire and he lives in this dark castle which is The Carter and all the ghost’s lost souls are the junkies. And he’s the vampire and he’s got all the souls inside lost. If you look at it like that, it’s almost the way we shot Nino is almost like the way you would shoot [legendary horror movie star] Bela Lugosi, you know what I mean. I play a lot with metaphor when I direct.”
Over the years, Van Peebles’ directing talents have been displayed on the big screen with “Panther“ and “Posse” as well as small screen fare such as “Law & Order,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Once Upon a Time,” “NCIS,” “Nashville” and “Empire.” Fans can look for Van Peebles next behind the camera as one of the directors for A&E’s upcoming remake of the classic miniseries “Roots.”
While he has a string of acting and directing credits, Van Peebles’ work on “New Jack City” ranks as one of his best efforts, considering the eclectic ensemble he brought together to make the film one that fans hold in high regard.
“What I’m proud of when I look back on that is that you talk about the lack of diversity in the Oscars and you look at my first feature and what we did with the cops, [it] was revolutionary. They’re like ‘He’s not an Asian director. He just put Russell Wong in there. That’s right. That’s my brother right there. He may not look like me. Judd Nelson might not look like me. Ice T may not look like me, but these are my brothers. And then the prosecutor [played by Phyllis Yvonne Stickney] was written as a man. Make her a woman; make her a sister [laughs],” Van Peebles said.
“So mix it up. You can make a hit movie without marginalizing any race. And that’s something Hollywood still needs to learn. You don’t have to leave nobody out. If you look at the diversity issue with #OscarsSoWhite and you look at the 25th anniversary of ‘New Jack City.’ We mixed it up, man. We put everybody in it. That’s one of the things I liked about it and that’s part of what compelled me to become a filmmaker that as an actor, I was just responding to what existed. But as a filmmaker, I could help create what would exist. You know three types of people, people that watch things happen, people who complain about things that happen and every now and then, some folks that make things happen. I like to make it happen.”