• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

'New Jack City' at 30: Wesley Snipes recalls meeting Ice-T, ambitions to make 'The Black Godfather'

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·3 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Wesley Snipes says they had lofty ambitions when setting out to make the 1991 crime thriller New Jack City, released in theaters 30 years ago, on March 8, 1991.

“The original film was supposed to be the Black Godfather,” Snipes tells Yahoo Entertainment during a recent interview promoting his new comedy sequel Coming 2 America (watch above). “I guess you could say we came close?”

Depends on how you define that parameter, but there’s no doubt that three decades later remains a deeply beloved slice of cinema, particularly among Black viewers. Its “level of depth in a film starring and directed by Black people in an inner city ghetto hadn’t been seen since the so-called ‘Blaxploitation’ era of the 1970s,” Okayplayer’s Dart Adams wrote on its 25th anniversary, crediting the film with detonating “the ‘Black Film Explosion’ of the early 1990s.”

Written by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Mario Van Peebles, the film stars Snipes as Nino Brown, a hot-tempered drug lord at the height of New York City’s Reagan-era crack epidemic, and Ice-T as the detective who vows to bring down Brown. Allen Payne, Chris Rock, Christopher Williams, Judd Nelson, Bill Nunn and Peebles rounded out the central cast.

The Godfather was indeed part of the film’s DNA. New Jack’s co-writer Wright had been a creative executive at Paramount who left his post to pursue screenwriting. Knowing the studio was interested in making a follow-up to 1972’s The Godfather and 1974’s The Godfather: Part II, he penned a treatment for what a third film could look like, and Paramount hired him to write an early draft. Talking to people in New York’s Little Italy for his research, he came up on the story of the Black kingpin who had booted the Mafia out of Harlem: Nicky Barnes, who would then inspire Snipes’s Nino Brown. (Francis Ford Coppola would ultimately re-team with author Mario Puzo to write 1990’s The Godfather: Part III.)

Critics caught on. Peebles “deals with the conventions of the modern drug genre in the same manner that Francis Ford Coppola dealt with the gangster genre in the Godfather films,” the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote at the time.

The film’s had an everlasting effect on African-American culture ever since. It’s referenced in dozens of rap lyrics. Jamie Foxx once had an entire New Jack City-themed birthday party. And as Ambrosia for Heads notes, the film has been sideline chatter for athletes like Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman.

Among the other memories shared by Snipes: meeting his co-star Ice-T, the “Cop Killer” rapper cast somewhat ironically as a New York detective (and who’d later make a full-fledged acting career out of playing law enforcement in Law & Order), for the first time.

“I didn’t know who Ice-T was at the time, actually,” Snipes recalls. “I was familiar with rap but mostly East Coast rap. And I thought the name Ice-T was kind of weird, actually. From a New Yorker’s perspective.

“And it sounded kind of soft. But when I saw him, it was clear that he wasn’t soft. By any means. So I understood the metaphor, you know what I’m saying?”

In 2019 it was announced that Warner Bros. was planning a New Jack City reboot, an idea Snipes was cold to when asked about it shortly later.

“I think some things should be left alone … if it worked at the time under the circumstances,” says the actor, who also noted he turned down the studio when they asked if he’d return to the role. “And the story was built around things that are current. I don’t particularly like the idea of recreating the drug culture. For what?”

New Jack City is currently streaming on Amazon.

Watch Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Wesley Snipes talk Coming 2 America:

— Videos produced by Jon San and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick

Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: