Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Billy Corben Catches a "Square Grouper"

By Scott Tre

Filmmaker Billy Corben reveals the seamier side of south Florida with an energy not normally associated with the world of documentary film making.  His Cocaine Cowboys films fly by with the speed of an olympic sprinter on a 5 hour energy dose.  The U was no different, telling the story of the evolution of the Miami University football program into sports dynasty with both enthusiasm and immediacy.  Billy Corben makes documentaries that appeal to those who wouldn't normally watch them, and he does so without sacrificing his artistic or journalistic integrity.  He now turns his eye to a more mellow time in the history of the South Florida drug trade.

The upcoming Square Grouper, offers a change of pace from frantic and blood soaked era of Cocaine Cowboys.  The title refers to the bales of marijuana that were jettisoned from smuggling vessels in danger of boarded by the authorities, only to be retrieved by eager Florida fishermen.  Judging from the footage shown, the tone seems a bit more laid back and jovial, with lots of laughter and smiling faces among the interview subjects.  The men being profiled seem more like inoffensive good old boys when compared to the mass murderers and opportunistic hustlers of the Cocaine Cowboy films.  The folk/country music gives it air of easy familiarity.  These guys seem to be more likely to by you a drink than to put a bullet in your head. 

It will be interesting to see how Billy Corben applies his style and sensibilities to this material, since it is so markedly different from the worlds of high stakes college football and cocaine dealing.  One thing is for sure: regardless of the approach, the the results won't be boring.  Mellow and laid back with a craving for junk food, maybe, but never boring. 

Cool Characters: Nino Brown Is Crowned King of "New Jack City"

By Scott Tre

When the black film Renaissance of the early 1990's was in its infancy, America was still deep in the throws of the crack epidemic.  Much in the same way that Blaxploitation "examined" the societal ills of its day,  Mario Van Peebles was about to deliver a film that would put the rise of the underworld "buppie" culture into perspective.  In the process, he would give the black film resurgence a shot of box office potency as well as controversy.  He would accomplish this on the back of a villain that would come to define the film itself.

It's the dawn of the crack era, and Harlem is a battleground.  Small time dons draped in truck jewelry and sporting fancy track suits are planting flags on street corners and laying siege to housing projects.  Crack cocaine is just beginning to make headway, supplanting smack as the drug of choice.  An enterprising crew known as the "Cash Money Brothers" plan to use this new scourge to stage a come up the likes of which Harlem has never seen.  Headed by ambitious Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his partner G-Money (Allen Payne), the CMB seize control of a building known as the Carter.  After displacing its residents, they turn it into a giant crack house capable of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.  Police Officer Stone(Melvin Van Peebles) puts together a task force that includes the rebellious Scottie Appleton (Ice -T) and Nick Perretti(Judd Nelson).  With the help of reformed crack addict Pookie (Chris Rock), they attempt to bring down the seemingly invincible CMB, whose expanding drug empire challenges the dominance of the La Cosa Nostra bosses that have long sat atop the big apple.

Every crime wave has a kingpin that embodies the characteristics of the vice itself.  Nino Brown and crack cocaine were meant for each other.  Nino has a crackhead's insatiable appetite for money and power.  His ambition and brazenness know no bounds.  His ambition is so high that it soon evolves into full blown greed, superseding every other aspect of his life.  As his empire grows, his worldview shrinks to the point where his range of vision is too narrow to accommodate anyone but himself. Unlike his cinematic idol Tony Montana, his narcissism is not fueled by cocaine but by the rush he gets from living the high life. He also is aroused by his own uncontested power and undisputed rule. His self-image seems even more enhanced than Montana's.

Nino is all about the grandiose statement. He prefers to make an example of you before you oppose him. His interesting negotiation tactics during his takeover of the Carter are a testament to that. He marches the superintendent of the complex through the street stark naked while holding a Spas-12 shotgun to his head. "Get down or lay down" is the official motto of the CMB. Nino also does what his number running forefathers never dared dream. In a moment of outright defiance, he scalps the pony tail of his La Cosa Nostra contact Frankie Needles. He does this while issuing the sorts of racial epithets that blacks are usually at the receiving end of in gangster movies. The message is clear "This is the new Harlem. All of them conk wearing, smack dealing ni**as might have been afraid of you, but I'm not." Nino reinforces this sentiment by sending his minions to perform a drive-by on a crew of Italian mobsters while they dine outdoors.

He treats women as disposable ornaments, fetish items to be traded in on a whim. He openly lusts for G-Money's woman while in the presence of his own. When she mounts a tearful protest, Nino responds by berating her family and threatening her not to touch him. Her inability to breed makes her unsuitable for the newly crowned King of New Jack City. Nino is all ego, and the prospect of not being able to sire a royal progeny to carry on his blinged out legacy is too much for him to tolerate. Just like that, his woman is discarded. His lack of loyalty even translates to his crew. While on the come up, he proclaims his love for and his loyalty to the ever pimpish G-Money. After Nino blatantly makes a play for his woman (who is all too receptive to Nino's advances), a rift forms in their friendship. This manifests itself in the eventual downfall of the CMB.

When on trial, Nino exhibits the same sort of cowardice that most kingpins do. He attempts to frame the overly dapper Kareem Akbar as the true leader of the CMB, and goes on grandiose tirade that portrays him as merely a cog in the wheel of the worldwide drug trade. "They don't make Uzi's in Harlem," Nino proclaims. Such proclamations are delivered with an air of self importance and invincibility. Not only is Nino all about himself, but he sees nothing unnatural about being that way. He feels entitled to that level of privilege. New Jack City doesn't simply function under his rule, it revolves around him. It's Nino Brown's world. We Just live in it. Nothing says this better than when Nino uses a little girl to shield himself from assassins' bullets during an ambush that takes place mere moments after a lavish wedding  financed by him. As Davy Kleinfeld once said in Carlito's Way: "Your whole world's this god damned big and there's only one rule; you save your own ass!"

It's all too easy to admire Nino's drive and ambition up until the point when he becomes a "true bad guy" by using a little girl as a cover from machine gun fire. People love to believe that any soul can be redeemed so long as he doesn't cross a point of no return. The truth is that Nino sold his soul long before the opening moments of the film. Which is truly the worse crime: flooding the streets of New York City with poison thereby turning them into a war zone that threatens millions of kids, or threatening the life of single child? If Nino ever had a soul, he pawned it for truck jewels and champagne bottles long before audiences ever got to know him. He is the living embodiment of the modern attitude toward business and success that permeates the post Hip-Hop generation: anything for a buck. The ends justifies the means. No hustle, whether legal or illegal, should ever be knocked. Nobody is putting guns to the heads of dope fiends and forcing them to partake. Why shouldn't someone accommodate that appetite? So what if he wasted G-Money? Money over bitches, everyday in every single way. Always business, never personal. Love never lived here, so don't bother asking.

That such tired platitudes derived from the pimp game and elsewhere are now held sacred by entire generations of misguided youth shows that Nino wasn't simply the demented fiction of some voyeur enamored by black criminality. Real Nino Browns existed in every city in America throughout the eighties and nineties. Their legacy lives on, waiting to corrupt anyone willing to partake. Here's to a hustlers ambition. All hail the king of New Jack City. May his memories of being on top give him much comfort in hell.