In the 1980s, inner-city communities all over America were ravaged by the increasing popularity of crack cocaine. Its low price, coupled with its narcotic strength and highly addictive properties, led to drug dealers scrambling to control local markets, often with violence. Meanwhile, addicts were firmly in the drug’s grip, not only stealing but also selling their property and often their own bodies in order to support their habit.
In the face of the crack epidemic, a nationwide drug awareness campaign was launched. I remember having class interrupted periodically so someone could walk in (or have us go to them, if it was an assembly) and talk to us about saying no to drugs. Harsh anti-drug laws were passed, designed not only to punish sellers but also customers and anyone even remotely connected with either.
At the same time, there was a resurgence of black pride, especially reflected in the burgeoning hip-hop culture. Artists such as KRS-One and Public Enemy made their names releasing music that raised social awareness. Many of the people who identified with the culture were the children of African-Americans who bore witness to and took part in the civil rights movement. This was the social climate in which 1989’s New Jack City was released.
New Jack City launched several careers, notably those of Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, and Chris Rock. Snipes and Ice play the villainous crack kingpin Nino Brown and the obsessed loner cop Scotty Appleton, respectively. Any Time Nerd worth his salt will find himself transfixed as the opening shot of the New York skyline, including the long-gone Twin Towers, appears on the screen. Director Mario Van Peebles manages to capture the grittiness of writer Thomas Lee Wright’s story and get a real feel for the atmosphere of New York in the late ’80s, the desperation of the working-class and the addicts, and the opulence that Nino Brown surrounds himself and his Cash Money Brothers with. Snipes brought the charisma he would come to be known for to this role, to the point that many people to this day forget that he’s supposed to be the bad guy.
New Jack City, in the end, is a cautionary tale. It cautions us against lust for power, the desire for revenge, and complacency toward our elected officials and community leaders. Not only did drugs victimize addicts and their families, the laws ostensibly passed to deal with the problem often caused them suffering as well. The postscript, which includes an admonition to approach narcotics “realistically — without empty slogans and promises”, still rings true today. Whether you admire the villain, or have nostalgia for Old New York, New Jack City is the movie for you.
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