On March 8, 1991, Mario Van Peebles’ feature directorial debut “New Jack City” premiered at the Mann Village Theatre in Westwood. On Saturday, a little more than 30 years later, Van Peebles walked the red carpet outside the very same cinema — now renamed the Regency Village Theatre — for a special screening of his classic crime thriller, hosted by the American Cinematheque.
Van Peebles was joined for the special event by “New Jack City” star Vanessa Estelle Williams, plus his children — Mandela and Makaylo, who joined their dad onstage to record his introduction to the movie, as well as Marley and Maya.
As Van Peebles reflected on the full-circle moment, he called out one of the gangster movie’s most famous (and Bible-borrowed) lines, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the massive crowd yelled back, “Yes I am.” The call and response is a reference to the iconic scene where (spoiler alert) Harlem drug kingpin Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his Cash Money Brothers compatriot Gee Money’s (Allen Payne) rooftop confrontation comes to a tearful end.
The filmmaker also noted that “New Jack City” opened in theaters just four days after TV outlets released the footage of LAPD officers beating motorist Rodney King.
“When this movie came out 31 years ago, there was a scuffle outside,” he explained. “So when the police showed up — and there was a huge line, that they’d never seen before like that in Westwood — there was some pushing and shoving and someone said, ‘Let’s get them back for Rodney King’ and a scuffle broke out.”
The narrative on the news was that “New Jack City” was causing riots. The L.A. Times headline read, “Rampage in Westwood,” as the paper reported on the melee that followed after theatergoers were turned away and later screenings were canceled.
“But turns out the people had never seen the movie, and so unless the poster was an incitement to violence, it didn’t make sense,” Van Peebles commented, adding that he went to the media to straighten things out.
“Typically, in a gangster movie, you’re emotionally connected with the gangster,’” he recalled explaining. “If you watch ‘Godfather,’ you connect with the gangster, but in ‘New Jack City,’ you connect, not just with the gangster, but hopefully with the cops — but even more with the victim.”
Van Peebles then recounted his experience watching the movie at the Westwood theater. “I was sitting in the back and this brother stood up in the front row when [Pookie, played by Chris Rock] was getting addicted to crack and said, ‘Just say no mothafucka,’” the filmmaker shared. “I knew at that point that we had made a gangster movie that de-glamorized drugs and showed the truth about what crack will do to you, so that was the good side.”
Beyond Van Peebles’ reclamation of the events of three decades ago, the screening — presented in 35mm — also marked the inaugural outing for American Cinematheque’s Perpetratin’ Realism: 1990s Black Film program. The ongoing series will screen one film a month throughout 2022 at various L.A. theaters, focusing on the new wave of Black filmmakers that emerged during the early 1990s. Their work was dubbed “new Black realism” by scholar-critic Manthia Diawara for the “dynamic portrayals of Black people grappling with the hierarchies of power and the living legacies of white racism, gun violence and illicit economies.” Currently programmed films include Spike Lee’s “Clockers,” The Hughes Brothers’ “Menace II Society,” F. Gary Gray’s “Set It Off,” Darnell Martin’s “I Like It Like That” and Reginald Hudlin’s “House Party.”
“These movies changed the cultural game,” Van Peebles said, thanking the Cinematheque for developing the program as he sat for a Q&A following the screening with Dr. Keith Harris and Dr. Felice Blake, who curated the new cinema initiative along with Dr. Raya Rastegar.
During the conversation, Van Peebles opened up about the making of the movie and its legacy. He also spoke of his late father, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, and his impact on cinema.
“I had the advantage of growing up with Melvin Van Movies,” he joked. “The perspective that that gave me, having my father in the business, was ginormous. And then I saw what happened in the 70s and the doors got shut on what they called ‘Black cinema.’”
When Melvin Van Peebles made “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” in 1971, it was the top-grossing independent movie up to that time. Mario Van Peebles had a front-row seat to greatness working on the production.
“I was a kid working on that set, so I got to see my dad bring his A-game to a very challenging situation,” he said. “It’s kind of like if you grew up as Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, it’d be very hard for some man to convince you as a woman you had no place in politics. Because I grew up seeing dad do his thing, I was like, ‘Oh shit, if I’m talented and lucky enough and prepared enough, maybe I can bring my game too.’”
But the aspiring actor and director quickly learned the reality of things for Black folks in the entertainment industry.
“If you were Black and you wanted to lead a movie, you were in comedy,” he said of his experiences in the late 1980s and early 90s. “In [Clint Eastwood’s] ‘Heartbreak Ridge,’ I’m the best friend of the leading guy, and I’m the funny guy.”
“If you could make the dominant culture laugh, like the court jester can make the king laugh, you can get away with saying damn near anything,” he continued, noting that the same limitations were true for his contemporaries from Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy to Whoopi Goldberg and his eventual “New Jack City” star Wesley Snipes.
“But it took Mario Van Peebles to see Wesley Snipes as our Al Pacino, as the star,” he explained. “It took Spike Lee to see Denzel Washington not as the funny guy or the best friend, but as the star. It took John Singleton to see brother Laurence Fishburne not as the best friend — that was the guy in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but as the star. But until we saw we as leading men, and then leading women, we weren’t in the game.”
Once movies like “New Jack City” made money at the box office, the doors opened for those actors (and Van Peebles as an actor and director) to break into leading roles in other studio pictures — especially those roles not written explicitly for Black actors.
“Hollywood’s not just white or Black. It’s also green,” he quipped. “That was the game changer.”
For more information on the Perpetratin’ Realism program and future screenings go to americancinematheque.com.