Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Happy Birthday Nino Brown: 'New Jack City' Turns 20

The crack epidemic of the 1980’s proved to be a boon for drug dealers, law makers, and the American media alike.  By the latter half of the decade, it had permeated the American consciousness via endless news coverage and fear mongering.  Strangely, it had yet to receive a crime film that purported to put the phenomenon in perspective.  Scarface had mythologized the “Cocaine Cowboys” era of Miami in way that still resonates today.  The gangster films released by Warner Brothers pictures during the 1930’s paid tribute to the kingpins and vices of that particular era, to the delight of that days movie audiences.  Was crack cocaine not worthy of similar honors?  Again, Warner Brothers pictures sought to properly dramatize the prevailing criminal trends of the era and reap the financial rewards.  On March 8th 1991, American moviegoers were given a guided tour of New Jack City.  

As the movie opens, the winds of change are sweeping through Harlem.  Crack cocaine has overtaken smack as the drug of choice.  A local crew known as the Cash Money Brothers adjusts to the changing market place.  Under the leadership of the ruthless Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), the CMB cut a bloody swath through the New York City Underworld.  Determined to bust up their operation, Undercover cops Scottie Appleton (Ice-T) and Nick Perretti (Judd Nelson) use unorthodox methods to infiltrate an apartment complex that has fallen under CMB control.  When that attempt fails tragically, Appleton becomes even more determined to destroy the CMB.  He poses as a drug dealer in order to penetrate their inner circle.  The closer he gets to his goal, the more personal his quest becomes.

Since the hysteria surrounding the crack epidemic was largely fueled by the American news media, it’s quite fitting that the first movie about it was largely inspired by a newspaper article.  New Jack City started out as an original story and screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright.  Writer and Harlem native Barry Michael Cooper was hired to do a rewrite.  The film’s title was inspired by a 1987 Village Voice article penned by Cooper titled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young.”  The article detailed how the crack trade had further decimated the already ailing city of Detroit.
The entire film was informed by the same sense of alarmism that fueled media coverage of the crack epidemic.  Mario Van Peebles, perhaps worried about potential fallout from community leaders and activists, basically turns the film into a feature length anti-drug PSA.  Nowhere is this more apparent, and heavy handed than in the epilogue that ends the film:

"If we in America don't confront the problem of crack cocaine and other drugs realistically—without empty slogans and promises but by examining what motors the human soul on the course of spiritual self-destruction—then the New Jack City shall continue to thrive, and we shall forever be doomed to despair in the shadows of its demonic skyline."   

Alas, such sentiments ultimately come off as posturing.  Van Peebles sensational approach to the material completely undermines the supposed intended message.  At its core, New Jack City is essentially an exploitation film masquerading as something more meaningful.  When the CMB dispatch of a Jamaican crack dealer known as Smitty in order to take over his spot, the entire moment is rendered in Dutch angles that give it a surreal feel.  It even ends with CMB member Keisha delivering a one liner.  It’s geared to generate excitement in the viewer as opposed to making them recoil in horror.  

New Jack City was perhaps the first film to acknowledge Hip-Hop as a mainstay of American pop culture.  While earlier films attempted to sell the culture to the mainstream, New Jack City simply regarded it as part of the milieu where the story takes place.  In New Jack City Hip-Hop is already a given.  It’s a fact of life in Harlem.

In the eye of the maelstrom is Nino Brown.  Wesley Snipes delivers what can only be called a career making performance.  Nino is the ultimate capitalist.  Unlike his cinematic idol Tony Montana, he does not get high on his own supply.  Power is his drug, and his appetite is insatiable.  Both Leroy “Nicky” Barnes and Felix “The Cat” Mitchell have been named as inspirations for the character.  Regardless of where his origins lie, Nino is one for the ages.  His megalomania utterly energizes what is otherwise a serviceable Blaxploitation picture.

Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown.

Like other Black films of its time, New Jack City’s opening was marred by violent incidents at certain theaters that showed it.  Never the less, the film went on to gross $47,624,253 at the domestic box office, making it the highest grossing Black film of all time up until that point.  The last couple of decades have revealed it to be an entertaining movie if not actually a good one.  What ultimately marks it as an important film is the unforgettable villain at its center coupled with the impeccable timing of its release.    It distilled the mania of the crack era and channeled it into a modern day Blaxploitation picture.  Masterpiece or no, New Jack City left an indelible mark on a generation.  That deserves to be celebrated. CMB! We all we got!

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