A Message Blurred by Violence

A SAGA about inner-city drug culture, "New Jack City," is the latest movie to be greeted with violence by young theater-goers. In Los Angeles, New York, and Boston the film's scenes of killing and degradation were matched by real-life stabbings, shootings, and rioting. "New Jack City" has also been greeted by millions of dollars in ticket sales.

It would be a mistake, however, to simply write off this film as another example of mindless Hollywood gore designed to make a quick buck. The blood, gutter language, sex, and frenetic action are certainly present, and concerns that such material sparks emulation from youthful viewers are warranted. The steady stream of viciousness coming out of studios today is deeply worrying.

Still, director Mario Van Peebles clearly intended "New Jack City" to be a movie with a message: that the excitement and money of cocaine dealing leads, quite literally, to a dead end.

In case the message is missed as the "Godfather"-like tale of gangster/drug entrepreneur Nino Brown is spun out, a sociological epitaph ends the film, warning that there are "Nino Browns in every city" - and unless something is done to alleviate the hopelessness that feeds drug use, there will continue to be.

The members of the National League of Cities who recently called for an "Operation Urban Storm" to address the needs of America's deteriorating urban hubs would agree with that message. So would Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan. Last week he announced ghastly statistics showing that death by gunshot among young black men rose 100 percent between 1984 and 1988. It rose by 40 percent among all teenagers. Policemen know only too well how accurate the movie's portrayal of heavily armed young drug dealers really is.

None of this, however, can offset the film's relentless violence. It's questionable, at best, whether the movie's social messages will register with young viewers. There's little doubt its scenes of cruelty will.

If moviemakers really want to counter the drug culture, they might try themes of caring and redemption instead of hatred and vengeance.

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