Today has been a day of impotent anger. It’s not really an emotion that common to Sunday lunchtime (Usually comfort laziness and tea drinking – if tea drinking were an actual emotion), but that was before my friend Ragnar posted a link this morning to a feature from the N+1 magazine titled Raise The Crime Rate.
It’s a powerful denouncement of the state of the US criminal Justice system and how racism, the war on drugs, privatisation, and shifting of the risk of crime and violence from the streets to the supermax jails has created a US prison system that is seething, all encompassing moral and ethical black hole, a gulag that if you get sucked in, you’ll pretty much never get out, so to speak. The article pretty much lays the blame at everyone’s door, from politicians across the ideological spectrum, to corporations, the middle class and even New York hipsters. Some of the things that it calls for to solve this are either radical (abolish the current prison system) to uncomfortable (Increasing the use of the death penalty for recidivist crimes, such as robbery and rape), but I really recommend that you read it.
Part of the article touches on the rise of crack use in America in the 1980s and the ensuing hysteria and moral panic that ensued. And reading that has given us the inspiration for this weeks instalment of the SUUUUNDAY CUUUUULT FILMMMMMMM CORNAH! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you NEW JACK CITY.
Directed in 1991 by Mario Van Peebles, it stars Wesley Snipes as Nino, a New York crime lord who rises to the top of the food chain, in the production and distribution of crack cocaine in the city, becoming so powerful that he and his gang take over an entire city block which they turn into a fortress. In order to take him down police officer Stone (played by Van Peebles) recruits two cops Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) and Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson) to take Nino down. the film becomes a battle of wills and guns between Nino, who becomes drunk on power, and the cops, who will stop at nearly nothing to take him down.
As a crime film, you can see today 20 years on how New Jack City sets its stall out from the very beginning about the evils of crack. And it ain’t subtle. the opening credits has Police sirens blaring, women screaming, and desolate inner city squalor, with radio news items telling of the robberies and murders due to an “Evil new drug called crack that is hitting the streets.” It’s just manages to keep on the right side of moralising about the realities of the drug trade in the ’80s, but only just with the criminals are larger than life, smooth taking and photogenic, while there are numerous montages about how crack is killing a generation of young people. But the film somehow manages to straddle between urban bleakness (“Dead Presidents”) and caricatures of the hood (Trespass).
In terms of the film itself, the plot owes a debt to classic Bogart/Cagney gangster films such as “Scarface,” with the story of the rise and eventual fall of a hungry, ambitious criminal who utilises the American dream of capitalism on the drugs trade. But it definitely feels of its time, chock full of ’80s pop culture tropes (Adidas street wear, Flavour Flav, boom boxes), along with a bumping soundtrack from the likes of 2-Live Crew, Ice-T, and new Jack Swing acts such as Colour Me Badd, and Johnny Gill
The main thing that stands out with the film is the acting of snipes as Nino, blending a mix of smooth charm with cut-throat ruthlessness, and Ice-T as the single minded cop on a crusade to bring down the Kingpin. Both show some rather powerful acting chops in what would be career defining roles for both of him.
So if you want a slice of the hard life from the ’80s, then get your pipes ready and blast some rocks to the new jack hustlers.