Reel Classic | New Jack City


One of the most popular films from the “Class of 1991,” New Jack City turns 25. It’s time to take a lookback and celebrate the film that made Wesley Snipes a star, showed Ice-T had a career as an actor and introduced the world to Chris Rock!!!

Released on March 8, 1991, the acclaimed crime-thriller was based on an original story and screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles in his directorial debut, who also co-stars in the film. Snipes plays Nino Brown, a rising drug dealer and crime lord in New York City during the crack epidemic. Ice-T plays Scotty Appleton, a detective who vows to stop Nino’s criminal activity by going undercover to work for Nino’s gang.

Wright, who had previously penned a draft of The Godfather Part III, would go on to write, direct and produce a seminal documentary of American gang life, Eight Tray Gangster: The Making of a Crip.

The screenplay was co-written by journalist turned screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, who also scripted 1994’s Above the Rim, and Sugar Hill, which also starred Snipes. Cooper is the first African American screenwriter in history to have two films produced in one year: Sugar Hill was released on February 25, 1994, by Beacon-20th Century Fox Pictures, and Above The Rim was released on March 23, 1994, by New Line Cinema.

new-jack-city-1991-05-gCooper’s rewrite was based on a December 1987 The Village Voice cover story written by Cooper titled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young”. The story revolved around the 20th anniversary of the 1967 riots in Detroit, and in its wake, Nicky Barnes, the rise of crack cocaine gangs in the late 1980s, such as Young Boys Inc., and the Chambers Brothers.

Produced with an $8 million budget, New Jack City initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 1991, before being released nationally on March 8, 1991. The film opened with $7 and would eventually become the highest grossing independent film of that year, grossing a total of $47,624,253 domestically.

While critics thought that Van Peebles’ film mines familiar “blaxploitation themes,” few would deny the impact of the film’s soundtrack. PopMatters remarked, “Aside from the new ground the film mines, the New Jack City soundtrack also ushers in a new era or urban black sound: “New Jack Swing” was a hybrid of gritty “street” instrumentals and R&B. Arguably, the primary architect of the New Jack Swing sound, producer Teddy Riley of Guy and later Blackstreet fame arranged New Jack City’s soundtrack.

Like its movie counterpart, the soundtrack blends defined spaces of black sound and performance to create a unique, upbeat sonic backdrop to the 1990s urban life and drama. While R&B and rap collaborations are considered the norm today, New Jack City‘s collaborations were considered experimental and fresh. “For the Love of Money/Living for the City” performed by R&B groups Troop, Levert, and (at the time) rapper Queen Latifah sampled two well known social commentary songs to describe the “new” urban landscape; the O’Jays “For the Love of Money”—Levert member Gerald is the son of O’Jays member Eddie Levert—and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” spoke to the ills and pitfalls of city life of the 1970s.

new-jack-city-two-disc-special-edition-200508150215327202By sampling these songs, both agency and artistic merit are “remixed” to speak to a more contemporary audience. The song plays on the culturally identifiable blackness of the sampled songs’ content as well as the familiarity of the instrumental sound. Other songs like newbie Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”, Christopher Williams’ “I’m Dreamin’”, 2Live Crew’s “In the Dust”, and Ice T’s “New Jack Hustler” cover the gamut of not only themes from the movie, but understandings of urban street culture at that moment: explicit sexuality, hustling, violence, and early death.”

Over the course of the past quarter century, the film has achieved cult status and has become embraced by the hip-hop community. The New Orleans-based Rap label Cash Money Records is named after the Cash Money Brothers gang. Cash Money Records rapper Lil Wayne has a series of albums titled “Tha Carter” after The Carter Complex, and Lil Wayne and Tyga have referred to themselves as Young Nino.

Despite it’s flawed, New Jack City is still fondly remembered by film fans, including many who can’t forget many of the film’s memorable lines and unforgettable style that successful captured the feel of the early inner-city 1990s. To quote a line from the film, “Am I my brother’s keeper,” after all these years, it is still a resounding YES THEY ARE!!!