The used Blu-ray copy of New Jack City I blind-bought includes no fewer than three accompanying music videos among its special features – including one for Color Me Badd’s eternally amusing hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.” I was so taken aback by this emphasis on music video tie-ins that I wondered if the film’s exceptionally well-curated street fashion and R&B soundtrack had been the original inspiration for the term “New Jack Swing.” No, that genre signifier had been around since at least the mid-80s, but my confusion at least points to how much of an MTV-inspired sensory pleasure the film can be from scene to scene – effortlessly oozing hiphop cool in every drastic camera angle and exaggerated cartoon of street-level criminal activity. What makes the film feel so fascinatingly odd is the way those formal surface pleasures actively go to war with the genuinely horrific dramatic content of its crack-epidemic plot. Halfway between a music video and an alarmist D.A.R.E. ad, New Jack City is exhilarating in its tension between framing the power of crack cocaine druglords with the stylized cool of Comic Book Noir movies like Dick Tracy ’90 or Batman ’89 and showing the full horror of their product’s havoc on their community as the nightmare it truly was. The film opens with a sample of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” announcing, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to signal both its aesthetic connections with music video filmmaking and its willingness to pummel its audience full-force with its anti-drugs messaging.
Ice-T stars as an undercover cop (dressed up for his rap rock “Cop Killer” phase, long before his eventual Law & Order retirement home) hell-bent on busting Wesley Snipes’s snarling druglord baddy, Nino Brown. The futuristic crack cocaine emporium the cops attempt to bust is even more intricately constructed than the complex operations of The Wire. Nino’s gang, The Cash Money Brothers, have seized an entire housing project tower and retrofitted it into a one-stop-crack-shop, where a customer can purchase, consume, and ride the high of the lethally addictive drug in a single, protected locale. This massive, organized crack-selling operation requires an equally colossal reaction from law enforcement, escalating this small-budget crime story to the unlikely heights of an action blockbuster. Cheesy guitar riffs accompany rogue cop heroics and accentuate grisly images of addicts (literally) hitting rock bottom. Ice-T & his undercover crew chase down their perps with X-treme BMX stunts, and find themselves de-wiring a bomb in a panic seconds before it’s set to blow. The film is less decisive about how heroic or sympathetic its portrayal of their druglord nemeses are supposed to come across. Sure, Snipes is destroying his local community to turn a personal profit, has no qualms with using a small child as a shield in a gunfight, and gives Stacy Keach a run for his money in how to most menacingly eat a banana. At the same time, there’s an undeniable anti-hero cool to the way the film’s music video aesthetic frames the dealers’ power & fashion (which includes a lot of Kangol, gold chains, and velvet track suits). When they rationalize “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan Era,” it doesn’t exactly erase their trail of dead, but it at least contextualizes their rise to power as an underdog story that’s uncomfortably easy to sympathize with.
With this debut feature as a director, Mario Van Peebles continued to evolve a tradition partly pioneered by his father’s proto-blacksploitation art piece Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song twenty years earlier: using the stylized cool of Black Culture to deliver a clear political message to his own community. There’s some genuine heartfelt concern here about the havoc the 90s crack epidemic was wreaking on black communities across America. He plainly states a plea to address the problem head-on in a textual epilogue that reads, “If we don’t confront this problem realistically – without empty slogans and promises – then drugs will continue to destroy our country.” That destruction is illustrated throughout the film in outright body horror detailing what crack does to its addicts – most notably to a “basehead” named Pookie played by a young, gaunt Chris Rock. Even with that blatant messaging, though, I’m not sure the film’s anti-drugs themes managed to overpower the music video cool of its depictions of profitable street crime. New Jack City has had a huge impact on black pop culture, inspiring the performing names of artists as disparate as the New Orleans-based rap label Cash Money Records, the Atlantan drag queen Nina Bonina Brown, and the ECW-fame pro wrestler New Jack. You can also see its visual sensibilities echoed in other hiphop music video-flavored features like Belly & last year’s remake of SuperFly, which also struggle to deliver a convincing political messaging over the stylized cool of their surface pleasures. Based on the film’s lasting impact among these pop culture descendants, it’s become increasingly clear that its style has overpowered its substance enough to make its drug dealing antagonists out to be admirable anti-heroes rather than the communal menaces they were likely intended to be. Still, the movie itself never shies away from depicting the full, ugly consequences of their brutal rise to power, and that clash between form & content makes for a fascinating watch in the moment.