It's hard to be a black filmmaker these days. Make an art film and chances are nobody will show up. Make an action flick and they'll show up with automatic weapons. Just ask director Mario Van Peebles. Violent melees and shoot-outs attended the opening of his first feature, New Jack City, in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Sayreville, N.J.
Media experts have been quick to point the finger at those they consider responsible. ''Where screen violence is so graphic and extreme,'' argues Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, ''spontaneous imitations like these are inevitable.'' Albert Johnson, professor of cinema at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests the moviemakers brought it on themselves. ''The filmmakers basically are out to make money,'' he says. ''They want to take those ingredients, that formula, that will evoke these types of responses.''
If you buy what they're saying, Mario Van Peebles has a lot to answer for. Remember the ''Twinkie defense''? When ex-San Francisco supervisor Dan White shot and killed supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, he claimed he was out of control because he'd eaten too much junk food. Today, vicious punks with automatic weapons have been provided with the celluloid equivalent. You can hear their lawyers already: ''Your honor, that movie made them do it.''
No question about it, New Jack City is what they used to call a ''Saturday-night movie.'' Cinematic junk food? Maybe, but the socially responsible kind of junk food, fortified with vitamins and minerals, or in this case, a clear antidrug, antiviolence message. Sure, automatic weapons blaze in the film, but the gangster epic doesn't have the body count you get with an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or a Joel Silver spectacular. In fact, the real cause of the violence in New Jack City movie theaters isn't hard to figure out. Bring together a lot of rowdies with automatic weapons the crowd you might get at city screenings of a popular action flick and there's a pretty good chance someone's going to go off. Especially if the theater overbooks, which was the case in the riot-torn Westwood section of Los Angeles when New Jack City opened there on the weekend of March 8.
Beyond that? Well, sit low in your seat if you must, but you'll find the causes of the violence are all documented in the movie itself: A radio report giving the statistics about the social and economic disintegration of the urban underclass is dubbed over the opening titles. New Jack City begins in 1986, at the onset of the crack epidemic in New York. It's about a time when street gangs run amok, when automatic weapons are plentiful, when despair and crack twine together like poison ivy. Today, the U.S. Congress likes to posture about the drug war, but they're so scared of the gun lobby they can't even pass handgun legislation as mild as the so-called Brady Bill, named for wounded presidential aide James Brady, which would create a seven-day waiting period between the time of purchase and receipt of a handgun. The result: America has the best-armed hoods in the world. Meanwhile, social programs directed at urban poverty are shunted aside as political deadweight: Who votes in the projects? Every other day, it seems, there's another report of a drive-by shooting in some part of town; it's open season on bystanders all year round. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if we could change all that just by replacing the shoot-'em-ups in the local theaters with Frank Capra's greatest hits. But I wouldn't count on it.
As New Jack City's villain, Nino Brown (played by smooth-as-silk Wesley Snipes), points out, nobody makes Uzis in Harlem. What goes down there, he says, is always part of a larger problem. Nino's still scum, of course, but he gets an A for Civics 101. So please don't shoot the filmmaker he's just the messenger. Those who are worried about violent crime should learn to aim their sights a little higher.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. will join the faculty of Harvard University this summer as the chairman of the Afro-American Studies department.