Like last year's excellent British miniseries "Traffik," actor-director Mario Van Peebles' new movie, "New Jack City," presents the drug problem from many different angles.
The dealer, the user, the law enforcer and those who are drawn into the drug business in order to survive are all given equal dramatic weight. And although some are guiltier or more responsible than others, they're all portrayed as victims of a deeply destructive system.The movie has received the highest ratings from preview audiences of any recent Warner Bros. release. In January it turned up at the influential Sundance Film Festival at Park City, where Variety's critic caught it and called it "a provocative, pulsating update on gangster pics . . . (the) powerful anti-drug sentiment will pack a punch with urban audiences."
The script, loosely based on a Village Voice article by Barry Michael Cooper, starts out in 1986, with the beginning of the crack epidemic, and deals with the three-year rise to power of a fictionalized drug king named Nino Brown. In the words of one character, he's a mad scientist who makes boys out of men.
"The biggest challenge was to make a film with the visceral power of a `Lethal Weapon' or a `Die Hard,' but also a film that wasn't just saying `just say no,' " said Van Peebles. "You need role models to say yes to. That's the other part of the equation."
The movie's heroes include a police detective (played by Van Peebles) and undercover cops of various ethnic backgrounds, played by Judd Nelson, Russell Wong and rap singer Ice-T. They're motivated largely by traumatic experiences with drugs and drug dealers, and they're not easily corrupted by money.
Van Peebles is proud of the film's realism: "Crack caught on so quickly, and the movie is pretty darn accurate about the music of the period (1986) and other details. The biggest response we got before the Park City screening was an appreciation of how authentic it is. Ice-T says this is one of those movies that makes drug dealers uncomfortable."
Nino Brown and his lieutenants use computers, they have sophisticated marketing skills, and they turn their employees into crack slaves, stripping them nearly naked before they are allowed to process the drug. Van Peebles says all of this is documented, included a blackly comic turkey-giveaway sequence.
"We've tried to be entertaining and informative, too," Van Peebles said. "The two are not mutually exclusive."
He's also aware that this mixture of melodrama and social statement is very much in the Warner Bros. tradition, particularly such 1930s Warners epics as "Little Caesar" and "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang."
"When I came in, Warners knew my work as a director from my NBC series, `Sonny Spoon,' and I'd acted in `Heartbreak Ridge' for them with Clint Eastwood," he said. "I wanted to do something like `Public Enemy' or `Scarface,' with a really in-depth profile of the villain, but it had to have balance as well. There's also a big difference in that the criminals in `The Godfather' and `Scarface' are immigrants, while this is America."
The son of legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles ("Watermelon Man," "Sweet Sweetback"), Mario made his film debut at age 11 in the original "Dirty Harry" (his part got cut but he says the credit did wonders for his resume). He makes a point that most of the criminals in "New Jack City" never had his advantages.
"These people have really limited choices," he said. "There's not a lot of stuff for them to say yes to. As a second-generation filmmaker, I had certain choices. I went to Columbia University and lived in Europe for a while. I had great cross-cultural advantages."
Still, there's a limit to that feeling when he watches an old Humphrey Bogart movie and finds himself identifying with Bogart, only to have a black actor turn up in a small, insultingly stereotyped role.
"Then I realize I'd be playing the butler," he said. "I'm not Bogart anymore. All this white propaganda makes people angry. You realize that the American dream is not for you. It becomes the American nightmare."
Van Peebles wants each of his characters to demonstrate "his or her own truth. As villainous and evil as Nino is, he has a point when he says that there are no poppy fields in the inner city, that everyone has his own agenda, that you guys are all guilty. Once you understand someone like that, you see what they're doing - which doesn't mean you approve."
He doesn't believe that there's an easy solution to the drug problem: "It's true that it's easier to get crack than a Cuban cigar, and legalization would take the crime out of it. We learned that with Prohibition. On the other hand, drunk driving is one of the biggest killers in the country."
"New Jack City" was completed for just $8.5 million. Van Peebles is proud that he could finish such a polished-looking film for so little.
"I got two weeks' rehearsal for the actors, and I stayed on budget," he said. "I'm good about that. I think I've proven that I can do it as a director, period, and not just as a `black' director."
He got his start directing his father in television spots.