Mario Van Peebles Wanted ‘Alternative Role Models’ for Young Black People in ‘New Jack City’

“It took us as filmmakers to see us as leads,” Van Peebles said

"New Jack City"
"New Jack City" (CREDIT: Everett Collection)

As part of the 2023 Tribeca Festival, director Mario Van Peebles opened up about his directorial debut, 1991’s “New Jack City,” alongside Fab 5 Freddy, Vanessa Williams and Michael Michele with an at-capacity crowd at the SVA Theater for an illuminating 35 minutes full of joy, surprises and honesty.

It can’t be understated how jovial Van Peebles—the son of prolific Black filmmaker Mario Van Peebles—was from the moment he stepped on stage to quickly introduce the film, which chronicles the rise of a ruthless drug lord in the dilapidated slums of late-1980s New York City. By the time the opening credits began to roll he was encouraging a major clap-along in the audience to the groove-worthy opening track. His energy, which stayed high until his final goodbyes at the end of the night, was infectious.

The filmmaker, who directed “New Jack City” from a script penned by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper, was eager to talk about the film and quickly opened up about the movie’s assertion of “alternative” role models aside from the flashy gangsters at the picture’s center.

“When I got the script on ‘New Jack City,’ the problem was it read like a Black ‘Scarface,’” Van Peebles explained. “And I was like, ‘Oh shit,’ because most of the gangster movies were made after Prohibition ended so they could say, ‘Well, they were Italians, and that was long ago.’ And it was white folks who had a lot more representation than us. But the thing with ‘New Jack’ was, ‘Well, crack is still a killer in the community today.’ So the trick was in most gangster movies you emotionally connect up with the gangster. If you watch ‘Godfather,’ you connect up with the Godfather; he’s a man with family values. He just kills m—kers now and then.”

He continued, “So I said, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ Look, the script had the tones in it. But if we [could] make the script more of a multi-culty ‘Untouchables,’ so DeNiro still had the badass role like Wesley, but against DeNiro and the Untouchables, you had Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia. You had viable role models, alternative role models of us to say yes to. I can’t think of any other gangster movie where you linked with the victim and if the crime is victimless, why not do it?”

Producer Fab 5 Freddy spoke on the character of the gangsters the film focuses on, particularly highlighting a crushing choice that says a lot about Snipes’ villain, Nino Brown. “We were concerned about the power of these images that could influence these negative characters and were very conscious because a lot of the Black films from the 70s had [what] you might consider negative influence,” he told the crowd.

“I remember [it] being discussed,” he said. “We knew Wesley’s character was going to be a compelling character for a lot of reasons. But we wanted to do something, and Wesley, I remember discussions about him using that child as a shield was supposed to really resonate with the audience like, ‘This guy’s a piece of shit.’ Seeing that whole sequence and how it all worked out, that whole big production scene, was pretty amazing.”

To the same end, Williams—who played the spunky and sole female gang member Keisha—discussed her time on the feature. ”In terms of showing both sides of the coin, when the movie blew up, it was fantastic,” she explained. “But I was saying to the young people, though, you live by the sword [and] you die by the sword. You see how Keisha died and this is not the way you want to live, even though it looks so glamorous and fabulous. This was a hard way to live and not how we really want to go.”

Van Peebles was a wealth of fun asides throughout the night, but perhaps the best one was when he revealed a little known fact about the film’s production. “There was a young fellow that came up to be an extra in ‘New Jack City’ when we’re doing the big cake shootout,” Van Peebles explained. “And he showed up, I think a little late, because he was always late; He could rap his ass off, though. That was RZA!” To make things that much cooler, RZA was actually sitting in the front row of the theater, to thunderous applause, of course.

But when it comes to directing, Van Peebles was all about discussing both his hands-off and hands-on approaches. It was clear he was willing to do whatever it took on this project to coax the best work possible out of his cast—and considering Van Peebles himself played a pivotal role in the film, that of Detective Stone, it wasn’t exactly the easiest feat to juggle. That said, the director found gold with his actors in the moments where he pulled back the most.

“That scene with [Nino] and Gee Money? Truth be told, the best thing as I did as a director was stay the fuck out the way and go ‘action’ and ‘cut’ because it was some genius shit,” Van Peebles said of the film’s pivotal final scene. “There were places where I had to just back up and take the ego out. My ego is not in nine more close ups of Mario. It’s in ‘Can we make the best movie possible?’”

The best movie possible included going the extra mile for the shots that mattered, and to Van Peebles, that included the memorable opening scene, which transpires on a bridge in Manhattan back before drone footage was a thing. Believe it or not, the studio had their own plans for how he should tackle the opening and they erred on the side of cost-cutting, as one might expect.

“Warner Brothers came to me and said ‘Mario, why don’t you use stock footage? We’ve got great stock footage. You don’t have to use your budget, we’ve got stock footage,’” Van Peebles said. “I said, ‘No no, no, I gotta go with real footage for the beginning.’ Why? Because I knew we as a people had been so short changed that we needed to know right away this was a real movie. So when we screen ‘New Jack’ for the first time and that ‘copter comes in, and in one shot, no cuts, and Wesley drops old boy off the bridge? Brothers had their popcorn!”

Van Peebles wasn’t finished with the fun facts, though, and toward the end of the evening, he let it slip that Snipes and co-star Ice T originally wanted to play each other’s roles. Snipes was dead set on the cop role while Ice T was fixated on the drug lord part. But no matter which way you slice it, it was pivotal to see both of these now-legendary Black men taking up the helm in a film of this caliber. In fact, Van Peebles attributes their casting as the kind that leads to more opportunities for marginalized people in the future.

“What’s interesting is that until Spike [Lee] saw Denzel [Washington] as the lead in ‘Malcolm X,’ he was playing smaller roles. Until [John] Singleton saw Laurence Fishburne as the lead in ‘Boys in the Hood,’ he was playing sidekick best friend roles. And Wesley had been in ‘Streets of Gold’ and ‘Major League,’ and I saw him as our [Al] Pacino, our [Robert] DeNiro playing the major roles. It took us as filmmakers to see us as leads.”

“And then it had to make money because Hollywood is not just white or Black, it’s also green,” he said. “But once those movies made money, then they said, ‘Oh we can put Wesley in Passenger 57. We can put Laurence Fishburne in whatever it is,’ and so we had crossed the line as actors. We started in the hood, but we were able to slowly get out and spread out. That’s the beauty of that.”