Why do you believe NJC became such a cult classic?
Mario Van Peebles: From my perspective, we took an asset to the genre and elevated it. One of compliments I got in doing "Baadaassss!" in Texas, this brother came up to me and said, "Baadassss wasn't just a movie; it was a film too." And that's what he liked about New Jack. He saw that it worked on a couple of different levels. It wasn't just a gangster movie. It was cognizant of social issues and political issues. There's a scene where Nino Brown says that this is bigger than him because we don't have poppy fields in the hood, but drugs are in there, so quickly it goes beyond the level of Nino Brown in the food chain and it involves corporate hands. The answer is that the film worked on multi levels. It spoke to people depending on where there where and when you re-watch it and if you have grown as a view, you see it differently now.
This film came out during the time when studios were saying yes to the gangster themes. We had "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace to Society". As this was your debut as a film director, were you thinking about what you wanted to do as opposed to what was working at the time in terms of greenlit films?
MVP: First of all, in going back to historical content, it didn't come out when it started that time. New Jack City came first and then came those films, but quite a bit later. New jack started that thing. I was very cognizant and I say this on the DVD, was that New Jack ran a little bit like a black "Scarface" and I was very cognizant of the fact that we didn't want to do that because crack is the killer in the community, in our community today, you had to balance the equation. If you wanted the focus to say no, you had to give them role models to say yes to. Typically, in gangster movies, the audience aligns emotionally with the gangster. In "The Godfather", you watched two hours about a guy with family values and in "New Jack City", although you connect with the gangster, you also connected with the New Jack cops, Ice-T, Russell Wong, Judd Nelson, and myself. And then, the big trick was to make the crime humanize, and not victim less by having a victim that you'd sympathized with like Chris Rock. That was the trick in the gangster movie. You didn't just roll with the gangster. I was very conscious of not just making a one dimensional gangster thriller but a three dimensional piece that would speak on a number of levels and be relevant on a number of levels and I think that's why the film still holds up.
With so much talk even about rappers in this business, what were your thoughts when you gave Ice-T such a plum role?
MVP: On the first level, I was thinking it was an interesting parallel to my role in the film as the police captain and assembling a task force that would go up against Nino Brown. I was taking a chance on these guys and my ass was on the line. I was taking a chance on guys as cops and I guess in real life, I was taking a chance as a director and as actors. The parallel of having someone unorthodox like Scotty Appleton to go up against Nino Brown was as parallel of having Ice-T go up against Wesley Snipes. I thought it was a very interesting parallel. I also had something else in mind. I was very aware of the history of it. Twenty years earlier, my father had made the biggest grossing independent film called "Sweetback Baadasss Song!" and Sweetback took a strong black empowered leads with a very adult soundtrack by Earth, Wind, & Fire and he put it out there and it broke all the records and here twenty years later, I was taking a strong, black empowered leads with a double platinum soundtrack and having messages inside that, and at that time we were listening to the beats of music, and we listen to a whole different way of music, and I was conscious of the facts I was doing something I was aware of before, because I saw my dad do it. I also knew that when Hollywood was looking for a funny guy or for a best friend to the white guy, they would often call upon us and minority actors, so when they wanted someone funny to act in "Major League", they called Wesley Snipes. When they needed someone to support Matt Dillon in "Rumble Fish", they called Larry Fishburne, and when they needed someone funny for ‘Heartbreak Ridge", they called Mario Van Peebles. So we were all running around and auditioning to be either the funny guy or the best friend to the white guy, but never the leading guy. So I decided I needed to a part of making that change, and as an actor, I want a job, but as a director, I don't have to complain about the darkness, but turning on the lights. So I stopped acting and started directing and I read Malcolm's book again, his autobiography where he says "wherever I saw passion, I would take action." So I started directing, and in doing in New Jack City, I brought in Wesley Snipes and told him, "In this movie, you're not going to play the best friend or the funny guy; you will be the guy". Shortly afterwards, John Singleton's movie would make Laurence Fishburne in "Boyz N the Hood" the guy and not the best friend or funny guy and that's what Spike Lee did with Denzel in "Malcolm X". He was the guy. When those movies made money, Hollywood reached out their pocketbook and gave Wesley Snipes the lead in "Passenger 57", which initially wasn't written for a black person at all. With New Jack City, we started to create the first viable black leading man. Although many of us came from comedy, such as Silver Spoon for me, I ended up directing and starring in "Panthers". Will Smith went from "The Prince of Bel Air" to starring as Muhammed Ali and being Oscar nominated, and then there's Jamie Foxx, who went from "In Living Color" to winning Best Actor for his performance as Ray Charles in "Ray". That was an important context to understand. With NJC, we created viable leading men in our generation and crossed out of just soul cinema to mainstream films. When Denzel and Wesley became to big and expensive to get, they come to me to play the part in "Solo", which was originally written for Sylvester Stallone. Suddenly I was getting a lot of roles as an actor because I helped make the change as a director.