Once I reached middle school, my mom’s policy on R-rated movies got a little...racial? For instance, I wasn’t allowed to watch Shaun of the Dead when it came out for its rating, but she bought a ticket for me to go see Blade: Trinity when it opened that same year. At home, she’d begun showing movies like Do The Right Thing and Boyz N The Hood to get an understanding of the world around me, and the realities of being Black in America. One of the movies included in the re-education of Joseph Jurado was New Jack City.
I didn’t really have the language to verbalize why I instantly took to this movie then, I just knew it didn’t look or feel like anything else and I loved it. Today, on its 30th anniversary, New Jack City still stands as a singular experience that hasn’t really been rivaled in the years since.
For starters, It manages to craft a large-scale portrait of the crack era from all levels. We see the perspective of law enforcement, the dealer, the user and the communities that are just trying to survive amid all the chaos.
In most crime films, we would simply follow Nino Brown as he rises through the crime ranks—shoot up some rival gangs here, be an emotionally abusive partner there, maybe see what the feds are doing, and then have it all fall apart just in time for Nino to go down in the third act.
Instead, the movie operates like an ensemble piece. We open the movie with antagonist Nino Brown, viciously portrayed by “The Daywalker” himself Wesley Snipes, throwing a man off a bridge before immediately cutting to a chase scene with dealer Pookie (Chris Rock) and Scottie (Ice-T), an undercover officer. From there we see Nino go from street-level boss to a full-tilt kingpin, while also following the unlikely relationship between Scottie and Pookie as they try to take down Nino.
As the movie goes on we see the effect crack has on those who use it through both Pookie and Allen Payne’s Gee Money, we see the effect crack has on the abuser. Particularly with Pookie, we see how much of a struggle it is not only to get clean but to stay clean.
Making the movie even more impressive is that it’s just so fucking cool even when doing all those things. Given the serious subject matter, no one would fault the movie from taking a straight-faced, naturalistic approach. Instead, director Mario Van Peebles said “fuck all that,” and managed to make a crime film that takes its subject matter seriously, but never misses an opportunity to flex on the audience.
From the moment you hear “You are now about to witness the power of street knowledge,” right before the opening shot, the movie already tells you this ain’t going to go down like your other little crime movies. Every aspect of the film—from its direction to its cinematography to the music—is meant to keep your eyes fully glued to the screen.
The whip cut into a dutch angle of Gee Money going from the basketball court into Nino’s Jeep always sends me. The action, a rarity in American movies these days, is actually well directed! You have spatial awareness! Also, special shoutout to the editing, as the movie has a propulsive pace that never feels relentless.
Not to mention all the quotable lines. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve told my homie Andy to “Sit your five dollar ass down before I make change!” when he feels like dunking on my admittedly mediocre skills in Call of Duty: Warzone. Anytime I have a pair of particularly chapped lips, my mom has never failed to hit me with an “Ooo, JoJo you got them Pookie lips,” before doing a 10 out of 10 impression of this scene.
In case you need reminding, the soundtrack has bangers on bangers on bangers. I’ve always been partial to Christopher Williams’ New Jack Swing hit “I’m Dreamin’.” I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to “New Jack Hustler,” Ice-T’s contribution to the soundtrack. This is the movie that gave use Color Me Badd’s enduring ‘90s bop “I Wanna Sex You Up.” I mean goddamn y’all, this is a movie that casually has Levert singing “For the Love of the City” over a barrel and club scene with Guy!
New Jack City simply hits on every level. It tries to do a lot, and somehow it more or less nails every beat it’s trying to hit in under two hours. I may be biased given clearly how much this movie has been a part of my life, but I sincerely think that it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that doesn’t always get its due when we talk about crime films.
So consider this my roundabout way of saying happy 30th New Jack City. You feel just as fresh as you did 30 years ago.