DENVER — `NEW Jack City'' paints a grim portrait of drugs and violence in the inner city, and violence has erupted outside a few theaters where the film opened. Did the film inspire those acts of violence? The film's director, Mario Van Peebles, says no. Rev. Leon Kelly, a Pentecostal minister in Denver who works with gang kids, agrees. Mr. Kelly's work has taken him to the theater to watch the same films ``his kids'' see, and to interpret the movies through their eyes. Still, Kelly, like many others, has reservations about the film and what it conveys to young people.
The son of the famous and talented black director, Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles was a film and TV actor and television director before making his cinematic directorial debut with ``New Jack City.'' It is an ambitious film, a message-oriented action picture meant to entertain and to instruct - surreptitiously. It is a gangster film with a difference: the black gangsters, while complexly human and capable of better things, are seen to betray their community. The heroes are black, white, and Asian -American - symbolizing the solidarity needed among the races to overcome drug abuse and violence.
The many disturbing acts of violence in the picture mirror real life. Mr. Van Peebles based his film on a true story, toning down certain events because the reality would have been too gruesome for the vast majority of viewers. The subject matter itself is volatile territory. But Van Peebles's message is clear: Crack kills. Those who live by it, die for it - harming everyone around them.
Reached by telephone, Van Peebles said he has been surprised and saddened by the negative publicity his film has received from the press by people who have not seen the film. ``It's been a sacrificial lamb. Of all the movies to do that to! Kids will sit and watch the body count go up in `Total Recall' and I challenge anyone to tell me the socially redeeming aspect of that film.''
A film gangs could relate to
Van Peebles says he set out to create factual entertainment the kids from the gangs would relate to. ``I know these kids. I used to work in a drug treatment center. If they see a soft, sanitized version of this world, they will immediately discount it as inauthentic.... I deliberately set out to do a piece of entertainment that would reach the boys and girls who were in danger of going into that world. The film is a tough film, but it's accurate. Kids have told me this is the kind of film that mak es drug dealers uncomfortable. As [rap artist and the film's star] Ice-T points out, in `New Jack City' anyone who smokes crack dies. Anyone who deals crack dies. Anyone who touches crack dies.''
Van Peebles went to a lot of trouble to underscore his central message with important secondary messages. Like its genre predecessors of the 1930s, ``New Jack City'' shows the rise and fall of a gangster who becomes increasingly dehumanized as he gains money and power. Nino Brown starts out with a unified organization of loyal followers - all of whom are either cold-blooded killers or equally remorseless exploiters of their own people. One by one they die, taken out by their rivals or by Nin o himself, until he is left alone.
But unlike most gangster movies, old or recent, ``New Jack City'' shows the havoc wreaked on the innocent by the guilty. ``It is the first gangster picture ever to show what gangsters do to ordinary people,'' the director points out. ``When you watch ``The Godfather,'' he [Brando] is such a romantic guy. You don't see him breaking legs, you don't see how he lives by violence.''
Running right through the film are biblical references and undercurrents reenforcing the antidrug messages. Gang members repeat over and over ``Am I my brother's keeper?'' They always reply ``Yes, I am.'' But they betray their brothers and sisters. As Ice-T's character puts it, ``The drug dealer is the worst kind of brother. He won't sell it to his sister, he won't sell it to his mother, but he'll sell it to his boys on the street.''
``Yes, there are a lot of religious undertones in the film,'' says Van Peebles. ``I can get away with that because the movie has that authenticity. It's actually a very preachy movie.... I can't say I was brought up religiously, but the biggest thing in my life is that all religions have at their core, `Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'''
Van Peebles thoroughly deglamorizes drug consumption. When we see people smoking crack or stoned on it, it's always a hideous sight - no romanticization of the drug high here. Nino's operation is hell on earth, says Van Peebles. ``The Crack house is Dante's Inferno - the circle of the damned.''
One of the most important messages in the film has to do with cooperation among the races. The hero-cops (Van Peebles plays one of them) are black, white, and Asian-American. They have their differences and their prejudices, but despite all the street-bully antagonisms, they must work together to survive and to overcome.
``I am half black and half white,'' says Van Peebles. ``One of the good things about that fact is that I can't hate anybody. The world is my brother and my sister.'' He felt it was important to include a white character who cares. ``A lot of people feel the inner cities have been allowed to have the influx of drugs running rampant. That stuff is stopable.'' So, when a young addict named Pookie is murdered, a white cop (Judd Nelson) says ``Crack isn't a black thing or a white thing, it's a death thing.''
A death thing it might be, but crack is big business. When we ask children to say no to drugs, what are we giving them to say ``yes'' to?
Looking for alternatives
``The only ray of hope I can see is education,'' says Van Peebles. ``You can't sell drugs, that's not a viable alternative. But one problem is, these kids look up to the white white-collar criminals like those involved in the savings and loan scandals and see that they aren't going to jail. These guys have money, they have education, and look what they're doing. They won't go to jail because they have powerful friends. Nino Brown doesn't have such powerful friends. So, yes, the movie is an i ndictment of Nino Brown, but it's also an indictment of the system that created him. Uzis aren't made in Harlem. Poppy fields don't grow in Harlem. How do you think all these drugs got here?''
``There is no excuse for selling poison to anyone,'' Van Peebles continues. ``And there's no excuse for violence at a soccer match, at a rock concert, or in front of a theater.'' Understanding the sociological conditions of violence does not mean excusing it.
Still, with his good intentions, lively cinematic style, and honesty, has Van Peebles inadvertently contributed to the problem of violence in the inner city by depicting it on screen? The problem may lie with the very nature of the cinematic image.
The influence of images
Children and young teens do not necessarily ``read'' images the way adults do. Movies have a peculiar power over their viewers and may be ``read'' on many levels. And the cinematic image can be said to be a two-edged sword. Images that might not disturb one viewer may well disturb another. The thing being exposed and excoriated on film may still be misinterpreted by some viewers whose personal experiences inform their perception of what happens on screen.
Many of the youths Kelly counsels are exposed to dreadful violence and sophisticated weapons every day. Bombarded by violence, violent images attract them in film. Because some of these kids have trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction, they may fail to grasp the message the filmmakers intend for them to receive.
The positive message may be lost behind the images of power, money, sex, and violence. ``A number of my kids who saw it, mainly [the] Bloods [gang], really identified with it,'' Kelly says. ``They look at Nino Brown as a high-class high roller.''
``I looked at the reactions of some of the kids who were there,'' he continues. ``They were infatuated with the money, the violence, and the girls. The glamour part of it seemed to have overridden any other type of message. The thing is, I see many movies, particularly those that draw the kids and I know how they are influenced.''
Still, how can one tell this story without an honest portrayal of the violence? ``Everything that was portrayed on that screen was a reality,'' Kelly admits. ``The girl who shot a man in the head with no remorse - this is a characteristic of this type of environment.'' He did express doubts about a key device in the film. A policeman would never take a reformed crack addict and expose him to the drug environment again as Scotty does Pookie - even to infiltrate a drug ring.
``In order to kick cocaine you cannot go back into that environment. So, to me the movie [at that point] shows people they can't really quit.''
``My thing,'' says Kelly, ``is using a film like this to show these kids some of the reality [of gang life]. You can't trust anybody in the drug business. In this type of a game there are no winners.... I would focus on the negative parts when talking to the kids about the movie. [Drug dealing] is dog-eat-dog. You will not win. Just as you went up, you will come down. I think if a group of people see ``New Jack City'' and if it was used as a discussion piece, certainly that way it would have the most benefit. But just for a kid to go see it, it would be left up to that kid which way he was going to receive it.
``I have to give Van Peebles credit,'' Kelly adds thoughtfully. ``I can really praise him, for trying to get out the message. And I know that no matter what you try to do and how you do it there's going to be criticism.''