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New Jack City [Movie Review]

Summary

New Jack City is a 1991 Mario Van Peebles film about a Harlem drug kingpin and the local police force that is intent on bringing him down. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) along with his right-hand man Gee Money (Allen Payne) and their Cash Money Brothers crew rise in the drug underworld as they expand into selling crack cocaine. The new drug brings large profits but also distrust among the once-solid crew as the neighborhood deteriorates due to violence and increased drug addiction which draws the attention of Scotty Appleton (Ice-T), an undercover police officer.

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Show Notes

New Jack City opens with an image of the Statue of Liberty and the camera then begins sweeping east over the city. You get a view of the Statue of Liberty, the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, and the camera then settles on what I’m assuming is the Manhattan Bridge. Aside from the World Trade Center, there aren’t a lot of iconic buildings in Lower Manhattan. Yet, there’s an opportunity to get a snapshot of what the city looked like at that time.

It’s not a major part of New Jack City but as someone who loves the New York City skyline, I enjoyed the opening. The buildings have changed over time with some now owned by different companies or having been renovated or completely demolished for new designs. As a result, the skyline has certainly changed over time but the scene captures the city as it was at that particular moment in time. It helps to set the stage for the story to come.

The action begins immediately with Duh Duh Duh Man (Bill Nunn aka Radio Raheem) dangling a man by his ankles over the side of the bridge while I’m guessing his wife or girlfriend pleads on his behalf. I never noticed it before but what was going on with this man’s teeth? They weren’t missing but were incredibly dingy and rotten. Not to be mean because you never know someone’s circumstances but they looked like the teeth of the other drug addicts in New Jack City.

It’s also in this scene that we’re offered an introduction to Nino Brown who steps out of a vehicle dressed to the nines. Given the violence, it’s obvious that he’s involved in some kind of criminal enterprise. The year is 1986 during the early golden age of hip-hop. Your average street dealer might be dressed quite regularly in a tracksuit or some jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt. But Nino is sporting silk pants, dress shoes, and an outfit that leans more towards being dressy. His outfit lets us know that he isn’t your typical street dealer as he’s experienced some degree of financial success.

As the camera moves across the city, there’s a voiceover that sounds like a news report detailing all of the things that are going wrong. Crime, homelessness, and all other signs of despair are on the rise. You see “Manhattan” which is what comes to mind for most people when they think of New York City. But after we meet Nino the scene shifts further uptown to where the buildings are large but not quite as tall. There is a normal perspective while moving across Lower Manhattan but the view shifts to a bird’s eye perspective when moving over Harlem.

The skyscrapers of Manhattan give way to nondescript apartment buildings and projects some of which are burnt out and abandoned. Because of the camera’s perspective in Manhattan, we mostly see the tops and facades of the skyscrapers but not the streets themselves. But when the scene shifts to Harlem, the perspective changes, offering a birdseye view of the streets with all of its empty lots and trash thrown about. We don’t see the people of Manhattan but there are all types of homeless people and drug addicts milling about on the streets of Harlem. In that opening sequence, the camera offers two very different perspectives which reflect the vast difference in these neighborhoods and how they are perceived.

Things have changed over time but now when folks think of the glitz and glamor of New York City or at least what they see in movies, it’s typically Manhattan. But back during the Great Migration, Harlem was the Mecca for Black people. Manhattan is a relatively small island and to some degree the financial center of the world as well as being an important city for multiple other industries. Within Manhattan proper, you have the Financial District, Theater District, Upper East Side, etc. Multiple neighborhoods and pockets of tremendous wealth. But if you venture just a bit out of those zones tucked away in the southeast of Manhattan is the Lower East Side and north of Central Park, you have Harlem. Both neighborhoods have a history of intense poverty and the crime that tends to accompany it.

Looking at New Jack City through more focused eyes gave the opening more meaning. The film begins with the Statue of Liberty which is regarded as a symbol of freedom and opportunity. It then pans over the Financial District which is the financial center of New York City and quite possibly the world. This is the 1980s, a period that would see the rise of yuppies, corporate scandals, and the emergence of characters like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. America was built on capitalism at the expense of everyday people but blatant greed was being promoted along with an every man for himself ideology. People came in droves from Middle America and elsewhere in the world looking for a piece of this action.

Just a few miles north and unscrupulous capitalism is also running wild in Harlem. But instead of stocks, bonds, corporate raiding, and insider trading people are looking to get rich by selling drugs. The appearance of these two environments might seem worlds apart but the ideology of unbridled greed can be found anywhere people are willing to compromise themselves for money.

After seeing New Jack City as a kid, for quite some time after, I thought Chris Rock was a crackhead in real life. I don’t mean any disrespect as I don’t know anything about the man’s life but assuming that he was never on drugs, Chris Rock is a really good dramatic actor. I’ve found that quite a few comedic actors tend to do very well in dramatic roles though it doesn’t always work the other way around. I consider Rock’s portrayal of Pookie his best role as I don’t think he’s been bad in most other films but rather that the films and characters haven’t been as good.

I’ve seen New Jack City many times in the past but rewatching it reminded me of being a kid growing up in Brooklyn. Not the drug dealing lifestyle but rather the emergence of hip-hop streetwear and the whole ghetto-fab styling that was New York’s trademark, Harlem in particular. The thick rope chains with big pendants and four-finger rings. Back then people dressed a lot differently. You certainly had tracksuits and other types of streetwear but people dressed up to go to clubs and might even have dressed on a day-to-day basis if they had money like that. In the present, wearing an article of clothing with a brand name is considered dressing up in some circles, especially for men. But back then men would wear slacks and a jacket if not a full-on suit to go to the club.

Looking back at real-life pictures from the time, you would see street dealers as well as big-time drug dealers hanging out with rappers and entertainers. We see some hints of this in New Jack City where Nino and his crew are destroying the community but you wouldn’t know it from the vibe when they walk into a party. The rappers and DJ shout them out, guys want to shake their hands, and women are trying to get their attention. Overall, everyone treats them like they’re royalty.

It seems like initially, the Cash Money Brothers are just selling cocaine and maybe heroin but Gee Money suggests to Nino that they also sell crack. The new drug is incredibly addictive and with addicts frequently returning for another hit, it generates a lot of revenue. Through the year 1986, we see the introduction of the drug as well as Nino’s operations and distribution strategy which calls for them to take over a local project building, The Carter. The building is large with a central courtyard that gives it a sense of being rather reinforced. By basing its operations at The Carter, the building offers a ready supply of customers. The spacious building can also contain fairly well-protected headquarters and enough room for processing the drugs.

The Carter is a self-contained apartment building complex that represents communities impacted by drugs. Here you have these drug dealers who move in and take over through the use of threats and public acts of violence. Often, people who don’t live in these neighborhoods ask why residents don’t do more or go to the police. Seeing the level of violence unleashed against other dealers, the building’s landlord or manager, and the tenants themselves during the violent takeover more than answers that question.

Residents are likely afraid of going to the police because they might face violent retaliation. Secondly, some of the residents are struggling in their day-to-day lives, and seeking relief or an escape from the pressure causes them to turn to drugs. Consumed by their addiction, they’re focused on getting high. Residents are offered the option to go along with the program or become an outcast at best and a victim at worst. It’s like Nino says, the residents will end up living like the hostages of Beirut in their neighborhood.

The transformation of The Carter as drugs take hold of the building symbolizes the havoc that drugs unleash on communities. In the beginning, The Carter looks like a regular apartment building, nothing fancy, just the basics. But the CMB’s assault on the community causes it to collapse. They take over the building and turn it into a drug market and manufacturing plant. In no time, the building and its people looked dilapidated and broke down. Images of the courtyard are ominous as trash can fires make it seem like a war zone while drug addicts stumble around like zombies.

I respect the commentary that New Jack City offers about the hypocrisy of drug dealers. Nino is terrorizing this neighborhood with drug sales and violence but then hands out food to people around the holidays. This man spends the year making money from the sorrow and misery of other people’s lives. Then he comes by using the money that he’s gotten from these people he’s exploited to give them a few dollars from the money he’s made off of them.

I liked that New Jack City showed the devastation of crack from different perspectives. Not only do you see Nino and Scotty as the drug dealer and police officer but also Pookie as someone who is addicted to drugs. Pookie is a hot mess and his teeth are raggedy. If you ever need a reason to say no to drugs, he is it. We witness his struggle of using drugs as well as the hell of going through withdrawal and trying to get his life together. But the sad thing is that given the reality that crack is a mind-altering drug, it’s hard to shake once you’re in its grip. Addiction is an illness and for many people becomes something that they have to fight against for the rest of their life.

The Spotlite is a club where Nino and his crew hang out as Nino owns the place and has offices upstairs. The first time we see Spotlite, it looks like your basic hip-hop club but just a few years later with the profits and proceeds from the CMB drug empire, everybody’s living well. It’s New Year’s Eve and from the outside, Spotlite looks like it has been renovated. The inside has also been hooked up and would have likely been trendy for the time.

CMB and the other partygoers are dressed in suits and a bit of a step above how they were dressed during the first club scene. Along the way we even see Duh Duh Duh Man getting a fresh haircut and sporting a full set of shiny gold teeth. His teeth are probably still a hot mess under them so why not just get your teeth fixed or get new teeth?

There’s some juxtaposition between the Spotlite nightclub and The Carter. As CMB experiences financial success through its sale of crack, Spotlite becomes more refined while The Carter deteriorates. The Carter goes from being rather nondescript to looking like a bombed-out warzone. Meanwhile with the money that Nino has made from selling drugs their hangout spot goes from being a little hole-in-the-wall type club to being rather fancy for the time. Though I will admit that the club scenes are pretty dope with the mix of New Jack Swing and everyone present dressed well in the fashions of the time.

There’s a scene where Nino is relaxing at home watching Scarface, a film that I think influenced a lot of people. It didn’t necessarily motivate people to get into selling drugs but Tony Montana’s persona and lifestyle appealed to a lot of people who were already involved or interested in the drug trade.

But there’s something I’ve always thought about and I heard I think it was Fat Joe mentioned in an interview. A lot of people are excited by Tony Montana’s life as a drug dealer on the rise and as a kingpin. Yet, it seems that they turned off the movie before the ending as they completely ignore that his life fell apart and he died violently in the end. He had a swift rise, a violent fall, and a short moment of enjoying his money before alienating everyone around him and losing everything.

In real life as well as movies, a lot of people get sucked into this lifestyle because it appears to quickly provide large quantities of money without the grind of a regular job or building a legit company. They’re mesmerized by what seems to be the endless pros and benefits such as power, local notoriety, money, and women. But many either don’t consider or ignore the cons and how much more likely it is that they will experience death, prison, loss of loved ones, betrayal, etc. along the way.

Nino Brown is a lot like Tony Montana in the sense that he’s selfish and just thinking about himself. Nino is so paranoid that he doesn’t trust anyone else. The rest of the CMB management are supposed to be his people. He and Gee Money are supposed to be brothers. But when they’re watching Scarface, Nino repeats the line that the world is his. This would seem to indicate that Nino regards himself as he’s the man, he’s the kingpin, he’s the one top. To him, Gee Money and the rest of the crew are his underlings. Gee Money tries to correct him by asking if he doesn’t mean to say the world is ours as if they’re brothers and in it together. But Nino just laughs it off without trying to reassure Gee Money.

Look at Nino and his girlfriend. Another woman comes along, she’s trying to catch Nino’s eye, and he flirts back showing some interest. He doesn’t go over and talk to her but returns her attention from across the room before pointing her out to Gee Money who has messed around with her before. When the party breaks down to just the two couples, the girl flirts openly with Nino in front of both his girlfriend and Gee Money. It’s disrespectful to the two of them and while Gee Money steps in to maintain the peace, Nino instigates the situation.

Granted part of the problem is that Gee Money is a bit of a weak link as he talks a bit too much, lies to impress Nino, and is a bit too emotional for his line of work. Nino also went against the code by flirting and then having an “entanglement” with someone that Gee Money had previously been seeing. It shows that Nino is out for himself and doesn’t have any scruples. He’s willing to step on or over anyone to get whatever it is that he wants.

I could see someone like Pookie infiltrating a drug enterprise but what I’ve never understood is the logic behind allowing him to come into any kind of contact with drugs. It’s like if someone went to jail for bank robbery, most would be unlikely to later hire them to work at a bank but you would be a fool to have them watch the money. Pookie gets clean and is doing well but he’s a drug addict. I would assume that the temptation to get high would be intense in a room filled with drugs.

There’s a scene at Nino’s house in his bedroom and the whole room just fits his persona as it looks like the devil’s lair. And the room where he has the iconic sit-down meeting with the high-ranking members of CMB continues the look. Both rooms are intensely tacky and have a devious vibe. But looking at them, the rooms perfectly match the character, it’s the kind of place you’d expect Nino to feel right at home.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never liked Ice-T’s performance in New Jack City. But rewatching the film, it felt like the problem wasn’t just with Ice-T but the whole police side of the story. The dialogue and acting on their end wasn’t on par with the street side of New Jack City which caused it to lack intensity. Wesley Snipes brought it as Nino Brown, as did Allen Payne and the rest of the CMB crew. The members of CMB weren’t necessarily complex characters but they were interesting. The police personas and their storylines felt tired as though I’d seen it all before. Just a bunch of cliches.

The tension between Nino and Gee is noticeable as New Jack City progresses. Nino goes from little snippy remarks to outright treating Gee like a flunky. Yet instead of tightening up, Gee begins to cave under the pressure piling up mistakes along the way. In previous viewings, I’d always regarded Nino as bullying Gee, which to a degree he does. But it’s in part because Gee Money is constantly messing up. Yet, Nino continues to give him chances so Nino is messing up too. Both are lacking sound judgment.

On the surface, Nino comes across as being disloyal but he places his trust in Gee Money and supports his ideas. Some of this likely stems from Gee Money encouraging Nino to expand into crack which turned out to be a profitable call. Yet it seems that Gee Money is of the mind that if they can’t be equal partners then he’s willing to make himself king. Gee is insecure and with him now indulging, he’s unstable and not thinking straight.

The distrust and paranoia in Nino’s and Gee’s friendship should come as no surprise. It goes with the saying that there’s no honor amongst thieves. If someone is willing to sell drugs and destroy their people and community for money then it shouldn’t be surprising that they might not be the most scrupulous or principled person.

In yet another scene, we see Nino giving handouts but this time it’s money to kids. Legendary songwriter Nick Ashford is seated beside Nino, playing a pastor or reverend. An old man who is constantly mean-mugging Nino and trying to get him out of the neighborhood shoos away the kids and chastises the pastor for fraternizing with Nino. But this shows that some people are willing to look the other way and compromise what they’re supposed to stand for when there’s money to be had regardless of the source.

This preacher is supposed to be a man of god but he’s hanging out with a drug dealer? I highly doubt it was because he was merely spiritually advising Nino as in the very next scene he’s officiating over a wedding and giving Nino props for sponsoring the event with Keith Sweat begging in the background.

Pressure mounts on the CMB from all sides and the two men at the top are also subtly fighting between themselves. It’s a stressful life filled with physical danger and the risk of being arrested. To cope with the pressure, Gee Money turns to crack and Nino turns to alcohol. Nino is at the top of this empire with a lot of money but he’s very isolated as he doesn’t trust anyone around him and for good reason.

Nino and Gee Money are both to blame for the situation with Pookie as Nino made it ok to hire him and Gee was the one that promoted him to the drug processing room. But Nino embarrassed Gee in front of everyone when things went wrong. Not to mention, Nino had a girlfriend. Regardless of their issues, if he wanted to see another woman, he should have chosen someone that didn’t have a previous history with his friend. It’s not like Nino thought this woman was going to be the love of his life so why pile on to your problems with Gee? He didn’t seem to care too much about the woman so why not just let him know out of respect that you’re seeing her?

He was selfish and short-sighted. It wasn’t really about either Nino or Gee being super into this woman but rather that she was one more thing for Nino to selfishly claim as his own. He was sleeping with the woman the night before and then comes into the meeting where he completely emasculates Gee Money. Nino is not stupid and knew what he was doing by treating Gee Money like a chump and completely talking down to him in front of everyone.

Nino had to have known that his treatment of Gee might breed bad blood and wasn’t a good move in the long run. But likely only thinking about himself, he didn’t consider that Gee might no longer feel an obligation to be loyal. I was surprised that he seemed to be surprised that Gee was looking to do his own thing and attempted to carve out a side deal. Nino might have been more cold-blooded than Gee but Gee was still in the position to cause serious problems for him.

When things fall apart and Nino gets his comeuppance in the end, interestingly, Scotty is cheered on by the crowd for beating up Nino. Some people felt a sense of loyalty because of the scraps he threw out into the community. But at the same time, there are a lot of people in the community who don’t approve of what he’s doing or have seen the harm and violence he brings to the neighborhood.

As to be expected, Nino’s courtroom testimony is a hot mess where he throws everyone under the bus in an attempt to save himself. Though I do agree with his explanation of being a cog in a much bigger system. It doesn’t absolve Nino of guilt but the drugs the CMB sell and the guns they use aren’t grown or manufactured in Harlem. They come from elsewhere and the people above Nino who are profiting should also be prosecuted.

Street-level dealers who don’t have access to top-tier legal representation are often sentenced to crazy prison terms. But someone like Nino would have the ability to hire high-powered attorneys. They would also have connections to other high-powered people which could be more valuable to police and prosecutors. And thus they’re allowed to plead out of cases and get sweetheart deals with just probation or a relatively short sentence.

When you look back at hip-hop music from the late 80s to the early 90s during what’s described as the crack epidemic, some rappers were speaking out against drug dealers. Some regarded them as being a negative presence in the Black community. But as time progressed and rap became more corporate it went from people speaking about living in their communities under these circumstances and the desperation that would lead to people selling drugs to glamorizing drug dealing.

This is probably one of the last films from the recent Black film canon to point out the ills of drug dealing. Since then, not to say all but a lot of films portray drug dealers as being cool. To be clear I think we should disagree with the drug dealer’s actions but generally not hate them as a person. Yet it seems like the people and things that weaken the Black community are now celebrated and pushed as being part of Black culture.

There’s now this idea of it being ok to be devoid of principles and to lack humanity as long as you make money doing it. You don’t have to have any morals or scruples as long as you’re earning money or in the pursuit of money. Regardless of whatever negative activities, it’s all acceptable as long as you’re making money.

I appreciate New Jack City for going against the grain by pointing out these various instances of hypocrisy from someone within the community. There are inconsistencies in living this life of peddling poison to your people for your gain. Nino touches on this idea in his conversation with the old man who confronts him. He tells Nino that he should be ashamed of himself for selling drugs to his people. But Nino points out that while his critics are broke and own nothing, he’s achieved a degree of financial success and is helping to take care of the community.

Nino has certainly achieved a degree of financial success but at the expense of isolating and losing himself. During his tirade in the courtroom, he explains that he’s been selling drugs since he was a little boy. He’s had a rough life with few opportunities so he turned to what he knew to make money. He feels like he was forced into this life unlike people like his ex-girlfriend and her brother who have other options but get involved for money or excitement.

Nino has some animosity towards wealthy people as he likely envies that they grew up under better circumstances. He’s dating a girl from a wealthy family which is a come-up for him but he treats her savagely. And he’s also hostile towards her brother who works at a bank. Nino has been risking his life ripping and running on the streets since he was a kid trying to get some money. Yet, while they have options to do other things they choose to slum it by hanging out with the CMB.

Going back to the point that I made at the beginning of the review, where you have this contrast of Manhattan versus Harlem in the 80s. It’s a time of excess where yuppies are taking over Manhattan and living it up. Seeing these images of people living comfortable and flashy lifestyles just a few miles downtown likely inspired some to go out and get money. In Manhattan, people earned money through questionable means but it was like the financial markets and stock exchange. But up in Harlem people willing to get rich through questionable means sold drugs or were involved in other illicit trades.

Nino makes the comparison that guns aren’t made in Harlem and there are no poppy fields. He’s a part of the problem but he’s not the source of it. He’s one cog in a much larger system where you have these big politicians and other high-ranking folks who are directly involved or at least indirectly benefit in the drug trade. They might not be selling out on the street but provide the weapons and transportation allowing drugs to be imported into and distributed around the country. A lot of Nino’s speech is nonsense to excuse his actions but he does make some valid points.

A conversation can be had about this aspect of capitalism. That’s not to say capitalism or money itself is the problem but rather that this commitment to capitalism even at the expense of people is an issue. The pursuit of money by any means is a problem. Drug dealers are criticized for their lack of principles and morals. Which is a valid criticism as they’re willing to destroy lives to make money. But before the 2008 financial collapse and still, to a degree in the years since, there’s less of a conversation about people on Wall Street being willing to destroy lives in the pursuit of money.

New Jack City is certainly about the pitfalls of the drug trade but there are also some solid points made throughout the film about the attitude of unbridled capitalism and consumerism with no conscience. And I say this as someone that considers themselves to be an entrepreneur. There’s nothing wrong with owning a business or being wealthy or otherwise financially successful. But there has to be some degree of conscience, principles, and morals with regards to how you go about making your money. It’s unacceptable to kill or otherwise destroy the lives of hundreds or thousands of people to make money. We can’t just look at the monetary gain and ignore the cost to human lives.

This is a great point that is made in multiple instances throughout New Jack City. And while there have been a lot of movies about the criminal underworld, this perspective is not discussed often enough. It’s fine to be successful. It’s good to strive for success. But we have to also look at the cost to ourselves and others.

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