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New Jack City

New Jack City (Van Peebles, 1991)

Probably the most intriguing element of New Jack City is the way it consciously invites comparisons to other movies. Blaxploitation is referenced repeatedly, with characters watching Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song on TV, and one character calling another "Superfly" while monitoring an undercover operation. And in a key scene, the villain watches the ending of Scarface in his home, perhaps unaware of the irony presented by his enjoyment of the movie. But I think that last point of comparison is key to what Mario Van Peebles is trying to do with this movie. It's a fact that Scarface, despite having a "crime doesn't pay" message obvious to anyone who really paid attention, has also become iconic in certain circles and has been misread both by defenders and detractors as aspirational. This is a "mistake" that Van Peebles doesn't want to repeat.

Scarface starts off in the grim realities of the streets, and as the protagonist climbs the criminal ladder, the movie gets more and more insular, with the climax taking place in his mansion as the manufactured reality of his empire collapses around him. The movie is about cocaine, the use of which brings about the protagonist's downward spiral, but we never see its effects on ordinary users. New Jack City presents us with scene after scene of characters and communities ravaged by the crack epidemic, and situates much of its action in the projects and in the streets to make sure we know the true consequences of the villain's actions. And I use "villain", instead of "protagonist", because the movie avoids making him our point of identification, placing us instead with a small team of unconventional cops determined to take him down. And despite Wesley Snipes' immense charisma, we're never meant to find him appealing, as the closest we get to him are when he admits to gunning down an innocent woman, and later uses a child for a human shield during an attempt on his life. Van Peebles wants us to know this is a bad guy who does bad things. (Van Peebles also stacks the deck against him by associating him with New Jack Swing, a genre nobody has listened to since the early '90s, and giving him a ridiculous shark fun hairdo. If he'd just had a regular flattop, he would have looked great. The cops instead get "New Jack Hustler" by Ice-T, easily the best song on the soundtrack. I also found Snipes' red suit, turtleneck and gold chain combo a bit gaudy, but I supposed that was considered cool at the time.)

I used "mistake" in quotes above because I don't actually think those things are flaws with the movies Van Peebles compares his to. The caution he uses in presenting this material makes his message clearer, but not necessarily more potent, as we're never able to be seduced by the villain's lifestyles. This was released the year after King of New York, another movie that captures the tension between a villain who vows to help his community and the evil he really does, but that movie dared to have us identify with, and at times even root for its villain. (And it's more pointed about its racial commentary to boot.) Snipes' character offers some justification for his actions, mentioning that "You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era" and offering a systemic condemnation during his trial:

I'm not guilty. You're the one that's guilty. The lawmakers, the politicians, the Columbian drug lords, all you who lobby against making drugs legal. Just like you did with alcohol during the prohibition. You're the one who's guilty. I mean, c'mon, let's kick the ballistics here: Ain't no Uzi's made in Harlem. Not one of us in here owns a poppy field. This thing is bigger than Nino Brown. This is big business. This is the American way.
But these are never argued persuasively. The movie closes things off in a way that perhaps harkens back to the Hays Code Morality that Van Peebles is trying to channel, but instead comes off as a little convenient. All that being said, the movie is directed engagingly, with actions scenes defined by their claustrophobia, as well as some nice textured supporting performances by Ice-T and Judd Nelson as the two loose-cannon cops, and Chris Rock as a junkie trying to redeem himself. And of course, you can't argue with the Snipes performance.