Some recovered crack addicts have Mario Van Peebles to thank.
The director of “New Jack City” says people tell him even years after the movie’s 1991 premiere that its visceral scenes put them off drugs entirely.
Van Peebles, who directed and starred in the Harlem-set gangster flick, tells Page Six in an exclusive new interview that he wanted the audience to “emotionally connect” with a victim.
“We made that victim Chris Rock, who so took you in that we deglamorized the f–k out of crack, man,” he says.
“You know, ‘Scarface,’ Tony Montana, it’s still a little aspirational sniffing mountains of coke … but there is no way in ‘New Jack City’ when you see that alleyway scene to say, ‘You know, this looks like a real good idea.’ Nothing sexy about it at all.”
He added, “We showed ‘New Jack City’ and kids stood up and said, ‘Just say no, motherf–ka.’”
Van Peebles, 65, is the son of legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, best known for creating and starring in 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and directing 1970’s “Watermelon Man.” He died in September 2021 at the age of 89.
“My dad was one of the smartest human beings I’ve met,” Van Peebles says, explaining that he had an eclectic childhood traveling throughout Europe until their family settled in San Francisco.
“We went to see Grateful Dead concerts, saw Jimi Hendrix, had a front seat on the peace and freedom movement,” the “Heartbreak Ridge” actor recounts. “My father took me to meet some of the folks in the Black Panthers, and I got to be a PA on the set of his movies. I got this wonderful multicultural, multiracial, global exposure as a kid that really helped me as an artist.”
Van Peebles saw less diversity in Hollywood, though. He notes that in the late ’80s to mid-’90s, black actors were rarely the leads in dramas, only comedies.
“We were all basically supporting guys,” he explains. “And if we were in a cop movie, you usually played the police commissioner because that way the studio could say, ‘We put the black guy in a position of power so we’re not racist.’
“But being in an action movie and not getting to shoot your gun or save the girl is kinda like being in a porno and not having sex or being in a musical and not singing,” he adds.
And so, when it came time to cast the police commissioner in “New Jack City,” Van Peebles toyed with the idea of having a white actor bellow, “Do it by the book or I’ll have your tail!” Ultimately, however, he decided to go with a black actor: himself.
The father of five has worked in the industry for decades, playing everything from shark bait in “Jaws: The Revenge” to an American who pretends to be Aboriginal in “The Facts of Life Down Under,” a role he surprisingly does not cringe to discuss.
“Filmmaking has continued to evolve,” he says. “I think we continued to evolve and grow and change, but I think it’s all in steps and degrees. … The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it takes a while and in increments, so you first take those steps to it.”
There will be a screening of “New Jack City” followed by a Q&A with Van Peebles on April 9 at the Regency Westwood Village Theatre in Los Angeles.
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