The late 1980s and early 1990s were tough years for some parts of America. Drugs, police brutality, and poverty combined to form a recipe for disaster, and it was in that environment that New Jack City hit theaters on March 8, 1991. A reflection of the times but also a cautionary tale for poor people in urban communities, the film is regarded as one of the most gritty and real films about drugs and violence ever made. For better or worse, characters like Nino Brown have become iconic symbols of pop culture. On the occasion of New Jack City’s 25th anniversary, here are 10 facts about the influential film.
1. IT WAS MARIO VAN PEEBLES’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.
Mario Van Peebles—an actor and the son of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles—has admitted that making his debut as a feature director with New Jack City was tough. He had directed episodes of shows like 21 Jump Street and Wiseguy, but the film was a different beast, especially in terms of the tone. “It's tricky,” he told The Morning Call. “New Jack is a dangerous movie to make, I didn't want to do a direct glorification of the Tone-Loc lifestyle. I had to be careful about that. I thought about the old Scarface movie, which was probably meant as a deterrent to crime because it depicts all the violence of that kind of lifestyle. But for kids who don't have any way out, 'Live Fast and Die Young' is like a motto. For people with no opportunities, gangsters become role models."
2. IT WAS A FINANCIAL AND CRITICAL SUCCESS.
Many critics—and audiences—gave the film favorable reviews and praised the actors for their realistic portrayals. The budget for New Jack City was $8 million, but the film went on to make just over $47.6 million domestically. The soundtrack was also a big success, reaching number one on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart and number two on the Billboard Top 200, thanks to songs by Color Me Badd, Keith Sweat, Johnny Gill, and one of the lead actors, Ice T.
3. WESLEY SNIPES HAS MICHAEL JACKSON’S "BAD" VIDEO TO THANK FOR LANDING THE ROLE OF NINO BROWN.
Snipes auditioned for Martin Scorsese and Quincy Jones to play the tough guy in the short film for Michael Jackson’s 1987 song, "Bad." New Jack City co-writer Barry Michael Cooper told Ebony magazine that he wrote the Nino Brown role specifically for Snipes after seeing his performance in that video. “Wesley’s finger-in-the-face questioning of Michael Jackson’s bravery was so realistic that I thought Scorsese had hired a homeboy off the streets,” said Cooper.
4. ICE T WAS OFFERED THE ROLE OF SCOTTY BECAUSE OF A NIGHTCLUB CONVERSATION.
Though today Ice T is widely known for the 16 years he has spent on Law and Order: SVU, he used to have a very different career. Prior to 1991, Ice T had established himself as a rapper and was building a body of work that is now regarded as an essential part of the framework for gangster rap. In his autobiography, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—From South Central to Hollywood, Ice T recounted how he got the gig by being in the right place at the right time.
That place was a nightclub, and director Mario Van Peebles was also there that night. “Mario said he overheard me talking sh*t in the bathroom,” Ice T wrote. “I don’t remember this exactly, but apparently I was telling someone: ‘The problem is, if they could put me under a microscope and find one molecule of me that gave a f*ck, then they’d have a chance.’” Van Peebles liked what he heard and told someone that “whoever said that is going to be the star of my next movie.” He found Ice T in the club, gave him his number, and convinced the rapper to contact him the next day.
5. ICE T WAS LUKEWARM ON THE IDEA OF PLAYING AN UNDERCOVER NEW YORK CITY COP.
After he was given the script and realized that his character, Scotty Appleton, was a cop, Ice T was hesitant. His lifestyle and his music represented the exact opposite of what he would have to play on screen. "I started to survey all the people around me, people whose opinions I trusted the most," Ice T wrote in Ice. "'Yo, I got offered this movie role,' I said over and over. 'But here's the thing: they want me to be the man. I thought my old crime partners might start laughing. Or snap my head off. But they all had the same response. They got these puppy faces, turned real quiet for for a moment, then asked me, 'Word? Ice, could I be in the movie?'"
6. MARTIN LAWRENCE WAS THE ORIGINAL POOKIE.
Chris Rock’s portrayal of the drug addict Pookie earned him praise from Roger Ebert and other reviewers, but he was not the first choice for the role. In a recent interview about the legacy of New Jack City, screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper revealed that comedian Martin Lawrence had the better audition and had secured the part. “He’ll admit it himself, his audition wasn’t great, at all,” Cooper said of Chris Rock. “Martin Lawrence, he came in and killed that audition. The person taping had to shut the camera off; everybody was on the floor [laughing].”
But shortly before production began, Lawrence’s mentor and fellow comedian Robin Harris passed away. “He didn’t take it well,” Cooper said. “He stepped out of the movie, and that’s when they gave the role to Chris Rock.” Lawrence later referenced the film in an episode of his sitcom, Martin, dressing like and quoting Snipes’ Nino Brown character while dragging around a stuffed dog.
7. THERE WAS SOME CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING THE RELEASE.
New Jack City and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, another film that dealt with drugs, violence, and black communities, were released within six months of one another. Five days before New Jack City hit theaters, Rodney King was brutally beaten by LAPD officers and the footage was broadcast to the world. New Jack City was cited as the cause for various disturbances and acts of violence in cities like New York and Los Angeles, which led to it being pulled from some theaters.
“Mann’s Theater sold out tickets for the film’s opening night and a mob of pissed-off kids, frustrated that they couldn’t get inside, started smashing store windows and vandalizing cars,” Ice T wrote in his memoir. He called the notion that the film’s content was to blame “total bullsh*t” and said that anyone who shoots someone at a movie theater came there with that idea.
8. THE NAME "NINO BROWN" CAME FROM A SHOPPING BAG.
Barry Michael Cooper recently revealed that the name Nino Brown was a reference to his own sartorial experiences growing up in Harlem in the 1970s. Cooper refers to a group of “scramblin’ guys” (the idols of neighborhood) who would shop at expensive boutiques in Manhattan. After window shopping at one store, Cooper inquired about the price of a pair of loafers and was told that they were $105. “I had a Neighborhood Youth Core job after school, and I saved up six of my $45-dollar-a-week checks to buy those shoes, before I went to my first—and last year—at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina,” Cooper said. “The icing on the cake was the Nino Gabriele store shopping bag. It looked like this ultra-fly plastic valise, in shades of brown and tan, with the name ‘Nino Gabriele’ written in an art-deco style.”
The bag earned Cooper respect, and the memory inspired him to name the film's lead character.
9. CHRIS ROCK SAID IT WAS "EASY" TO BE POOKIE.
In an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Chris Rock spoke about how “easy” it was to be Pookie in the early ‘90s because he had real-life experience with people who did and sold crack cocaine. “Crack and the VCR, and the portable recorder came out at the same time,” Rock told James Lipton. “Worst combination ever ... Unlike heroin and opium and all the other great drug plagues of the century, crack, you could see it ... I wasn’t on crack, but we all were kind of on crack at the time.”
For years after making the film, Rock said that something bizarre would happen to him: drug dealers would say hello to him on the street, give him a hug, and slip crack or cocaine into his pockets.
10. THERE IS A PREQUEL AND A SEQUEL.
In his interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Barry Michael Cooper said that he has written and is writing a precursor to the New Jack City story, as well as a follow-up to the 25-year-old story called Am I My Brother’s Keeper, after one of the most iconic lines from the film. “This goes into Nino’s childhood, man—Nicholas,” Cooper said. “That’s his name: Nicholas Brown.” Cooper said that the prequel focuses on Brown’s upbringing in Harlem and what led his life down the path that it takes in the film.