3 minute read

Mario Van Peebles

From Acting To Directing

Having proven himself as an actor, Van Peebles went on to achieve his goal of working behind the camera. He began with television, directing episodes of Wiseguys and 21 Jump Street and a CBS Afternoon Special for children called Malcolm Takes a Shot, in which a cocky high school basketball star suddenly develops epilepsy and can no longer play his favorite sport. With these projects to his credit, Van Peebles let it be known at the film studios that he was ready to try directing a feature-length production, and Warner Bros. approached him in 1990.

The studio had a hard-hitting script titled New JackCity about crack cocaine dealers in Harlem; the film was given a small budget and the studio had low expectations of those working on the project. "They expected us to not necessarily be on time and on budget," Van Peebles noted in Jet. "So, I think it was a nice surprise that we completed the movie on time and on budget." Van Peebles not only directed the film—which was shot in only 36 days for a fraction of the cost of most features—he played a role in it as well.

Starring Wesley Snipes, rapper Ice-T, and Judd Nelson, New Jack City tells the story of Nino Brown, a ruthless crack dealer who rules his small domain in Harlem by any means necessary. Van Peebles cast himself as a police officer who supervises undercover operations aimed at putting Brown's crack empire out of business. "There aren't too many movies around that take a fresh look at old problems, especially problems like gangs and drugs," wrote a Jet reviewer. " New Jack City is one of those rare exceptions.... The movie deals with the exploitation of youngsters as it follows the rise of a Black gang that builds a lucrative crack kingdom in Harlem. In addition to showing how horrifying and ruthless the world of drugs and gangs can be, it also shows the caring and compassionate side of its villains."

New Jack City was released the same weekend as The Hard Way, an action-comedy starring Michael J. Fox. The latter film cost more than three times as much as New Jack City to create, but was quickly eclipsed at the box office by Van Peebles's film. In fact, riots broke out at some urban theaters, in part, because of the huge crowds that attended early screenings of the controversial film. In its first weekend of release, New Jack City—which cost $8.5 million to make—grossed more than $10 million. It has since become an extremely popular and best-selling home video.

The press was quick to cover the violence at theaters showing New Jack City, and some observers even blamed the movie's content for the incidents that occurred in several cities. Van Peebles responded to these charges in a New York Times editorial: "The film opened to positive reviews and is doing well at the box office, but its anti-drug, anti-violence message seems to be getting lost in controversy. People assume that the movie's content somehow inspired young people who see it to violence—give me a break. Was the rioting in Los Angeles caused by young people who had just seen New Jack City or because they couldn't get in to see it? Was it because they had seen the movie or because they had seen the video of a black man being beaten by members of the Los Angeles police department?"

The violence did indeed subside when more theaters agreed to show the film, and Van Peebles's talent as a director was not overlooked. The movie's success earned Van Peebles a spot on the "A" list of black directors in Hollywood, assuring that he will be considered for future projects. A writer in the Economist noted that "Mr.

Peebles is best known as a film and television actor. Inexperienced as well as black, he would have stood no chance of a studio contract as recently as five years ago. Times have changed." Van Peebles took advantage of every opportunity that his newfound celebrity afforded him. Over the next decade he would rise to the top of his industry as both an actor and director. But in doing so, he never lost his focus on the social messages of his work.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalMario Van Peebles Biography - Destined For Show "business", From Acting To Directing, Continued In His Father's Footsteps - Selected works