New Jack City (1991)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Blade Trinity & Night of the Creeps (1986)

Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas