Classic Soul Cinema: ‘New Jack City’

The classic crime thriller New Jack City is based on an original story and screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright. The film was the directorial debut for Mario Van Peebles, son of legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who also stars in the film.

The film initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 1991 before being released nationally on March 8, 1991.

New Jack City : Cinema 1-Sheet Poster

New Jack City : Cinema 1-Sheet Poster

New Jack City stars Wesley Snipes who brilliantly plays Nino Brown, an arrogant rising crime lord and drug kingpin in New York City at the height of the crack epidemic. Rapper Ice-T plays Scott Appleton, a detective who vows to stop Nino’s criminal activity by going undercover to work for Nino’s dominant drug ring gang called the Cash Money Brothers.

The film also stars Allen Payne as Gerald “Gee Money” Wells, Nino’s childhood friend and the second in-command of the Cash Money Brothers; Vanessa A. Williams as Keisha, a member of the Cash Money Brothers; and R&B singers Christopher Williams (as Kareem Akbar, a bank teller turned member of the Cash Money Brothers), Keith Sweat (a singer at a wedding ceremony), and Nick Ashford as Reverend Oates.

Up and coming actor/comedian Chris Rock also stars in the film as “Pookie” Benny Robinson, a former stick-up kid who is left homeless and poor after Scotty shoots him in the ankle. He also becomes addicted to crack and eventually turns police informant. Pookie infiltrates the Cash Money Brothers and is ultimately killed after he gets caught sneaking drugs.

Public Enemy’s Flava Flav has a cameo as a DJ.

The screenplay was co-written by journalist turned screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, who also wrote 1994’s Above the Rim and Sugar Hill, which also starred Snipes. Cooper’s rewrite was based on a December 1987 Village Voice cover story Cooper wrote titled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young.” The article revolved around the 20th anniversary of the 1967 riots in Detroit and the rise of crack cocaine gangs such as Young Boys Inc. and the Chambers Brothers in the late 1980s.

New Jack City was set and filmed in New York City between April 16 and June 6, 1990, and was produced with an estimated budget of $8 million. The movie grossed more than $7 million during its opening weekend and ultimately became the highest grossing independent film of 1991, pulling in a total of $47 million domestically.

The film’s soundtrack was equally as successful, reaching #1 on Billboard’s R&B album chart and #2 on Billboard’s pop album chart. It consists of eleven original songs performed by chart- topping R&B and hip-hop artists of the time including Guy, Keith Sweat, Color Me Badd, and Johnny Gill. One of the soundtrack’s songs, “I’m Dreaming” by Christopher Williams, reached #1 on the R&B/hip-hop singles chart, and the medley “For the Love of Money/Living for the City,” performed by Troop, Levert, and Queen Latifah, reached #12 on the R&B/hip-hop singles chart.

While some say New Jack City seems dated now, it is nevertheless a classic with memorable performances and a great soundtrack. The film also helped break down barriers for independent black film productions.

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

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