A New Jack City Remake Is Reportedly In The Works. Is It Time For Change?
Among the canon of Hip-Hop lifestyle films, few have had the impact and longevity of New Jack City. The 1991 Warner Bros movie, which was written by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper, ushered in a new era of cinematic storytelling that not only brought to life the narratives made vivid in the Rap music of the time, but also featured the music genre’s artists as its stars. The movie also was accompanied by an all-star soundtrack that played an equally important role in its success. Within a few years, films like Boyz N The Hood, Juice and Menace II Society, would take the template and make it a fixture in modern African-American film, but New Jack was just that–a trendsetter.
The Mario Van Peebles-directed film starred trained thespians like Wesley Snipes, Bill Nunn, and Allen Payne, but also gave high profile roles to artists like Ice-T, Christopher Williams and even comedian Chris Rock. While artists like LL Cool J and Kid n’ Play had graced the big screen in earlier films, New Jack City would open the door for a wave of MCs-turned-actors to bum rush the show business. Ice Cube, Tupac, Queen Latifah, and countless others took on roles that spanned a plethora of character types, in its wake.
Now, nearly 30 years after its release, Deadline is reporting that a reboot of New Jack City is in the works. According to the publication, Malcolm M. Mays, a filmmaker and actor featured on FX’s Snowfall, is writing the screenplay for the updated version of the film. The film is reportedly being produced by Doug McHenry, one of the original movie’s producers, and Bill Gerber, who recently made A Star Is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. No director has been reported to be attached to the project.
The history around New Jack City is deep and rich. In 2016, Ambrosia For Heads spoke with both Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper, and the two writers shared incredible revelations about the film. Wright revealed that the original story for New Jack City was inspired by The Godfather movies, and was based on the real-life story of Harlem gangster, Nicky Barnes. Wright, a former executive at Paramount Studios, had written a treatment for Godfather III shortly after he left the company. During the process, Barnes was repeatedly mentioned by those Wright interviewed, and so he decided to create a story focused on Barnes.
“When I did my draft [of Godfather III], they sent me to the East Coast,” said Wright. “I spoke to old Italian guys in Little Italy, South [Philadelphia], Atlantic City, and to some of the guys who had advised on the first two [Godfather] films. They were all suggesting periods of time to write about, when the mafia was strong and periods of history for various [crime] families. Again and again, when we were potentially talking about doing the doing the film set in the ‘70s, they were talking about this guy who kicked them out of Harlem. Every one of them seemed preoccupied with the fact that they had been forced to leave a section of the city by someone who was very well organized, extremely intelligent, and forceful with leadership that rivaled their own. That was Nicky Barnes. Simultaneous with that sojourn for research purposes for Godfather III, 60 Minutes did a story, as it happened, on Nicky Barnes. [After] that introduction by Mike Wallace, I thought, man, [Nicky Barnes] is iconic and seemed to be important enough for somebody to write about him. So as soon as I was done with my Godfather draft, I went back to the East Coast and decided that I would write the story of this iconic character.”
Once Wright was done with his story, he says he encountered tremendous resistance from the studio, which bristled at making a film about a Black drug dealer. Despite his potentially involving Eddie Murphy, who had a long-running relationship with Paramount, the studio did not want to make the film, and Wright took his screenplay to producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry. The pair worked with Quincy Jones, who had a studio deal with Warner Bros. Warner was interested in the film, but believed it would be better as a story set in the ’80s around the crack epidemic, rather than during the ’70s, when Barnes was in power. Wright adapted his story, and it eventually was taken over by revered journalist (and Harlem native) Barry Michael Cooper.
Cooper, who had been an investigative journalist with publications including Spin magazine, had written the first national piece on crack cocaine. He injected his sensibilities about the era into the film, as well as his knowledge and passion for the music of the time period. In his conversation with Ambrosia For Heads, Cooper shed light not only on the further evolution of the screenplay, but also the filmmaking process, itself, particularly during the auditions stage.
“[Chris Rock] was not the original ‘Pookie,'” shared Cooper. “The original “Pookie”—who secured the role, who nailed it at the audition was Martin Lawrence. Chris Rock…and he’ll admit it himself, his audition wasn’t great, at all. Even during the audition he had to stop to say “let me do this again.” You could see the look on his face of ‘Man, I screwed this up.’ Martin came in…Martin may have auditioned before him, because the late George Jackson, God rest his soul, and Doug McHenry, they were the producers. Jackson McHenry Productions had a bungalow on Warner Bros.’ lot in Burbank, [California]. So I was at both of those auditions—the ones in Burbank, and the ones at SIR Studios [in New York City]. So I saw all of the auditions. Martin came in and destroyed it. He took the words that I had on the page… I want to get in touch with Doug McHenry to get the Warner Bros. archives to release some of those auditions, man. From Vivica Fox to Big Daddy Kane to…I can go on and on. Vivica Fox, man, actually…she auditioned for both Celina and Keisha. She killed it! It was just that she was on her soap opera at the time, called Generations. She wasn’t really that known. I told George, ‘This woman is incredible!’ She had the New York accent and everything; she just didn’t get [the parts].”
Cooper also revealed a number of details about the symbolism he embedded throughout the film, including the inspiration for the name “Nino Brown,” as well as stories about stars Wesley Snipes and Allen Payne. In his conversation with AFH, Wright also revealed New Jack City‘s original ending, which was a radical departure from what was displayed in the film. Cooper also shared that he had been working on both a prequel and a sequel to the film.
In a 2018 interview with journalist Shawn Setaro, Ice-T, who played detective ‘Scotty Appleton’ in NJC, said he had been in active discussions about a sequel, that included Wesley Snipes. While it is unclear if it was the same project to which Cooper was referring, Ice-T says of the sequel that never happened, “The new movie opens up with [‘Nino Brown’] in the ER, with barely a pulse. Then he flat-lines. [My character ‘Scotty Appleton’ is] there with the cops and everything. Then, right as he flat-lines, the mothaf*cka reaches out and grabs my wrist, and the pulse kicks back in. Then he comes back. The [sequel] was supposed to be something about him and me teaming up and going after the next-level gangsters.”
While a sequel to New Jack City has not happened so far, talk of the new reboot by Warner Bros. is sure to stir strong feelings among the film’s long term fans, especially those who believe there’s no reason to change what was already great. It joins films like Set It Off, How High and others in a long list of remakes of crowd-pleasers that carry enormous responsibilities to the legacies of the original films.
In other news, the Nicky Barnes story will now be told on screen, as well. Will Smith will star as Barnes in Netflix’s The Council. The film will tell the story of the crime syndicate Barnes led in Harlem, which went by the same name as the movie. Barnes was featured in American Gangster, the film starring Denzel Washington which depicted the life of Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas. In that film, Cuba Gooding, Jr. played the Council leader. This Friday, September 27, Epix premieres episode 1 of its series, The Black Godfather, starring Forrest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, perhaps Harlem’s most famous crime boss.