Reclaiming Reality: Mario Van Peebles on Reimagining a City and an Industry in “New Jack City”

When Mario Van Peebles returned to the the Westwood Village Theater in Los Angeles this past weekend, 31 years after his directorial debut “New Jack City” first premiered there, he recalled a conversation he had with Michael Mann about what an audience will accept as far as creating a convincing reality while bringing an artistry to it that could reveal another kind of truth.

“Any time the camera is doing things that your eye doesn’t naturally do, it hydroplanes a little bit from reality, so you have to be a little bit conscious of that,” said Van Peebles, whose bold choices throughout the 1991 crime drama such as arresting dutch angles, outfitting the charismatic drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and crew in florid fashion full of color and a unique narrative structure continues to keep it fresh all the years later. “I knew that early on with “New Jack City,” I wanted to take it into a hyperreality, so it wasn’t New York City, it was a New Jack City, [and] I wanted to play with that, which allows the viewer to flow through it with an energy.”

This was in response to a question from the audience and no doubt the type of conversation that co-curators Dr. Felice Blake, Dr. Keith Harris, and Dr. Roya Rastegar had hoped to start with “Perpetratin’ Realism: 1990s Black Film,” a series that will continue throughout the year in L.A. as a collective effort of the American Cinematheque and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. As Dr. Rastegar explained in introducing “New Jack City” and by extension the exciting lineup to come, with virtual panels and Q & As accompanying such films as “Clockers,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “House Party,” “Juice,” “Set It Off” and “Boyz N the Hood,” “These films breathed new life into an old legacy of cinematic realism and really blew open that space between the fiction and the real.”

For a number of reasons, it made sense that “New Jack City” would kick off the series when chronologically its bow in 1991, first premiering at the Sundance Film Festival en route to making over six times its $8 million budget in the months to follow, likely helped get the green light for a number of other films in the lineup. However, a lavish opening night at the Westwood Village held considerable significance geographically as well, not only a rare foray for a Cinematheque screening outside of its home theaters of the Aero, the Los Feliz 3 and the Egyptian and less than a few feet away from UCLA bringing in a new generation of filmmakers to attend, but the site where the film had been pulled from its screenings after a fight occurred outside the theater that led to vandalism in the area during its premiere less than a week removed from the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. A screening now could act as the rebuke against what many in Westwood, including an 18-year-old student named Ava DuVernay, insisted at the time, and Van Peebles suggested on Saturday, was yet another act of blatant racism when the film itself couldn’t have possibly had any influence on those events.

“It turned out the people had never seen the movie yet, so unless they saw the poster — which is a dope poster — as an incitement to violence, it didn’t make sense,” said Van Peebles, who recalled how he knew he made the exact film he wanted to make deglamorizing the drug trade and the violence it inspired when upon seeing the hopeless crack addict Pookie, played by Chris Rock, someone from the audience on opening night yelled back at the screen, “Just say no, motherfucker!”

In fact, “New Jack City” reveals itself almost immediately as an unusually compassionate look at a community where drugs have become one of the only avenues for income for a select few while plunging many into deeper despair. Despite having the magnetic Nino Brown attempting to pull everyone into his orbit, the film resists ever centering him and Van Peebles is careful to include a long, tender passage devoted to Pookie’s rehabilitation and spiking a section that might typically glamorize Nino’s rise through terrorizing the community with a wistful a capella ballad “Living for the City,” performed by Troop and Levert. In subverting the formula for a traditional gangster film, Van Peebles confirmed what eagle-eyed viewers may have already picked up on when he said, “The modern day gangster is like a vampire and the lost souls are the junkies, so I wanted Wesley to appear around things that were dead and Scottie” — the cop played by Ice T, tasked with tracking him down — “was around books and children and things that had life to them.”

“It did read a little like a black ‘Scarface,’” Van Peebles said when he first got the script for “New Jack City” by Thomas Lee Wright — in fact, Wright has said the film started out life as an early draft for “The Godfather: Part III” before the production exec-turned-screenwriter became enamored with Nicky Barnes, the ‘70s New York kingpin known as Mr. Untouchable, as more than a supporting character. The film would get a rewrite from Barry Michael Cooper, a former investigative reporter from the Village Voice, who Van Peebles credited with some of “New Jack City”’s keenest observations, envisioning Nino as no different than John F. Kennedy’s father Joe, who worked the angles as a bootlegger to make it in America, but Van Peebles also knew that while the gangster genre provided the film with an irresistible hook, making an Nino an attractive anti-hero was something he wanted to avoid.

“And that’s tricky because the original gangster pictures were made during prohibition and prohibition had ended, so [an audience could say] it used to be like that and we could enjoy the villain, but that’s not even around anymore,” said Van Peebles. “But crack is still a killer in the black community today, so there’s a different responsibility and I can’t just go and pimp us out and not be conscious of that, so I said, ‘Well, what if instead of making it feel like a black “Scarface,” [we make] more like a multi-culti ‘Untouchables’ [where] DeNiro still had the badass role, but against Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Andy Garcia, you had viable alternative role models to say yes to — if you wanted people to psychologically say no [to a life of crime], you had to give them role models to say yes to.”

It wasn’t just the characters that Van Peebles was conscious of, but who would be playing them, joking that “if you were a brother in an action movie, usually you played the police commissioner, you were past your sexual prime and you said lines like, ‘You go by the book or I’m going have your ass.’” The joke would be on Van Peebles to some degree when the studio’s insistence he appear in the film would lead him to playing the police commissioner himself, but he would have the last laugh after seeking to cast against type at every opportunity, taking inspiration from his own family tree.

“I went home and we got white folks on my wall, we got black folks on my wall, we got Native Americans, Asians, East Indians, I got a cool ass gay aunt – I even got an aunt who’s a Trumper,” said Van Peebles. Basically in my family, we’ve got everybody, so I had to love everybody and realized early that good allies come in all colors, so I went back and I said, ‘I can’t make reactive cinema.’ I’m not going to make a film that’s just doing the damage they’ve done unto us. We’ve got to do better.’”

That’s how in the same year he recorded “Cop Killer” with Body Count, Ice T would play one of the boys in blue on screen, Judd Nelson, still John Bender in everyone’s mind from “The Breakfast Club,” would play his partner, and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Vanessa Williams would land juicy parts as a lead prosecutor and a volatile associate of Nino’s in parts typically reserved for men. Although Van Peebles couldn’t have fully realized the impact that kind of vision could have while making “New Jack City,” he did know from watching his father, the legendary Melvin Van Peebles, find success with the groundbreaking “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” that changing others’ perception of what he was capable of began with seeing himself there first and feeling as if he belonged, noting that up until then the majority of the few Black actors to succeed in Hollywood made their way up on comedy rather than drama, including himself.

“In ‘Heartbreak Ridge,’ I’m not the leading guy. I’m the best friend of the leading guy and I’m the funny guy and if you look at ‘Streets of Gold,’ Wesley’s not the leading guy, he’s the best friend, and Eddie Murphy was killing it as the funny guy and Whoopi could kill it,” said Van Peebles, who noted that Snipes’ momentum came not from a film role, but appearing in Michael Jackson’s video for “Bad.” “If you could make the dominant culture laugh like the court jester could make the king laugh, you could get away with saying damn near anything. But it took Mario Van Peebles to see Wesley Snipes as our Al Pacino, as the star…[and] once Wesley made movie money with ‘New Jack City,’ Hollywood’s not white or black, it’s also green, so what happened was Hollywood [said], ‘Well, he made money for Mario’s film, Warner Bros, we could use him in ‘Passenger 57.’ Suddenly, we had to see ourselves as capable of carrying a movie and then they did.”

It was actually “Heartbreak Ridge” that had set the stage for Van Peebles towards directing his first feature, though he said few at the time knew he had such ambitions when being a working actor required him to go on auditions and “when you’re behind enemy lines, it makes no sense running your mouth.” Still, he had racked up a few helming credits on shows such as “21 Jump Street” and “Wiseguy” and after starring opposite Clint Eastwood in “Ridge,” his fellow actor/director introduced him to the higher-ups at Warner Bros including then studio boss Terry Semel, which led to the studio keeping tabs on “New Jack City,” ultimately taking ownership of the film as a negative pickup after it had been completed independently. Costing as much as “the catering budget to make ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’” Van Peebles said, referring to Warner Bros’ other New York-set saga of the moment, “New Jack City” wasn’t flush with resources, but had a director who had firm ideas about what he was doing in spite of it being his first feature.

“When you shoot your first feature, it’s like going into a haunted house with a gun, but you only have three bullets,” said Van Peebles, giving advice to the aspiring filmmakers in the audience full of UCLA film students. “You can’t shoot at every ghost that comes along. You’ve only got three bullets, so one, get a great director of photography that knows when to paint and knows when to make their day, two, get a first [assistant director] who really knows what they’re doing and has a voice you want to listen to because they’re going to be yelling at some point and the first AD does not want to be a director. And three, get the most ass-kicking cast you can find.”

From his own experience as an actor, Van Peebles had known that the best results often emerged organically on set, but that required a great investment of time as a director to know how to position them for success.

“A big part of it is getting out of the way,” Van Peebles said of directing. “Finding the best actors you can get and [recognizing] what we love about them, like what do you love about Ice [or] about Wesley, so I spent time figuring out, “Oh, I like that angle, what I like about his personality” and create a stage where they could dance. Wesley would do shit that I’d just get out of the way and he would just bring it.”

He would take a more hands-on approach to directing Rock, who hadn’t done anything as dramatic as playing a drug addict before, but nonetheless figured out a shrewd way to play to his strengths.

“When directors started recording sound, we lost a lot of our power, [and] when we were shooting black-and-white and silent films, you could talk to Mary Pickford [or] Buster Keaton, like directing a photo shoot [where you’d say from off-camera], “Buster, look up, climb up higher. The bird’s coming.” You could talk him through it,” said Van Peebles. “But once you started recording sound, directors had to start going, “Action and cut,” and then you’d have to give your notes afterwards, so we lost a little power there [and] I thought Chris Rock is so good with the comedy and comedy is the flip side of tragedy. What if I did most of his tragedy without sound? So if you look at the stuff when he’s got the heavy emotional stuff to do, a lot of that I did like a silent film, so I could talk him through it…then I just took my voice out in post and put his breathing in. So part of it is really getting to know your actors so you can bring out the best in them because every actor is going to speak a different language.”

It was hardly the only time that evening in which Van Peebles would cite the history of cinema, which he provocatively spoke of having 20-year cycles after seeing his father’s career explode with “Sweet Sweetback” before opportunities began to dry up. (Van Peebles Sr. told his son that you can’t clean out a casino and expect to welcome you back, after proving to the studios he could do better independently what they had done.) The fact that Melvin’s filmmaking career started because he was fed up with the westerns he would see with non-white actors resigned to playing stock characters — Van Peebles Jr. recalled his father asking a projectionist how much 90 minutes’ worth of film would cost so he could make his own, though unfortunately that didn’t account for editing — would lend some karmic justice to having Van Peebles’ success with “New Jack City” lead to making the multicultural oater “Posse” as a follow-up. However, Van Peebles, who said he is both at work on another western and content to direct television these days, arriving in Westwood from spending time in the studio with RZA and Busta Rhymes until the wee hours of the morning for the production of season three of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” suggested that a long-term investment in Black filmmakers has been difficult to come by when the nature of the business itself is cyclical and race is often conflated with a genre of filmmaking, though he also took some comfort in it.

“When my dad did “Sweetback” and he did it independently, the studio had a film written by a white guy named Ernest Tidyman and they saw “Sweetback” made money, so they said, “Let’s cast our movie in black,” Van Peebles said of what would become “Shaft.” “After that, ‘Super Fly’ came out, [and] what was interesting was the Black Panthers loved ‘Sweetback’ and they said “Sweetback” was about a street sex worker but he basically goes from a ‘me’ mentality to a ‘hustler’ mentality to an ‘it’s about us’ mentality, and they liked it because they thought ‘Sweetback’ made being a revolutionary feel hip. They also posited that ‘Shaft’ was a great film, but it seemed to make working in collusion with the system hip and ‘Super Fly’ made dealing drugs against your own people hip, so they said ‘Be careful because the icing of the cake looks similar’ — a revolutionary brother with fly clothes and cool soundtrack — ‘but the revolutionary core of the cake was slowly being drained out’ and when you really look at it, you go, ‘Oh, that’s the difference when they do it versus when we do it.’”

He continued, “And then they shut the door on Black film and if Hollywood makes a lot of Vietnam movies [at the same time] and they stop making money, they’ll say, ‘Oh, [audiences] aren’t interested in Vietnam movies,’ and they did a lot of ‘Jaws’ movies — I did a “Jaws” movie, not my best work — and after a while they’ll say, ‘Oh, shark movies aren’t making money,’ but they won’t blame it on the color of the actors in the movie whereas when they’re making Pam Grier this or that, they didn’t say urban action flicks aren’t making money, they say, ‘Oh it must be the color of the actors.’ So they shut the door on them.

“That’s why on “Posse,” I made it a point with my Western to use Woody Strode, to use Pam Grier, to use Isaac Hayes, to use Melvin Van Peebles. I said I want to use the ‘Posse’ of the ‘50s, the ‘70s and the ‘90s, so in the 1970s, my dad does “Sweetback” and those movies come out and then I do [‘New Jack City’] and Spike [Lee] and [John] Singleton were doing their thing and there’s a 20-year gap because that next audience is going ‘Damn, I want to do that.’ That next boy or girl is going, ‘I want to do that.’ And that’s the beauty of it.”

Knowing the opportunities can be fleeting, he said of “New Jack City,” he wanted to make the most of it.

“We knew we were stepping into some dangerous territory and asking some interesting questions, but that’s part of the Van Peebles’ legacy,” said Van Peebles, who brought his own sons Mandela and Makaylo to the stage after they were filming him for Instagram while his daughter Maya sat in the audience. “We like to do that.”