New Jack Comeback


In 1987, the Voice published a cover story about New York’s drug trade titled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young,” [PDF 1, PDF 2] by a writer named Barry Michael Cooper.

“Two weeks later I was on a first-class flight to Hollywood to meet with Quincy Jones. My head was huge,” Cooper says today. His meeting with Jones led to a job rewriting a screenplay titled Nicky, referring to Nick Barnes, a 1970s Harlem heroin kingpin. Eventually, Cooper’s revision formed the basis for New Jack City, released in 1991. The film grossed more than $44 million and left a permanent mark on urban culture. Overnight, every two-bit hustler seemed to fashion himself after Nino Brown, the film’s fearless drug lord. The movie was also good for its budding stars: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, and Chris Rock were all launched into orbit by New Jack City‘s popularity.

“That film showed white movie executives that there was a market for edgy black drama,” Cooper says. And he took advantage of that realization by getting hired to write two more projects, Above the Rim and Sugar Hill, both released in 1994. “I thought I was incredible,” remembers Cooper. “I really did think I was Nino Brown.”

Cooper was soon branching out, directing music videos for the likes of Dr. Dre and writing additional scripts for both television and film that went nowhere. “I got so high on myself that I turned down jobs. My former colleagues at the Voice told me not to quit journalism, but I got turned around by a woman, who made me think I could become a record producer.” That relationship resulted in Barry being arrested for assault in 1997. “Robert Townsend paid my bail,” Cooper says. His plea deal banned him from Los Angeles for a year; by the time he got back, he found that doors were no longer opening for him. Harlem’s golden boy was shut out.

Cooper has continued to write, and he’s been paid for projects, but none that have reached the small or large screen. And now, he’s trying something that is either very desperate or truly creative. Or both.

Using a $250 Fuji Finepix digital camera, Cooper has produced a 14-part film series [“Webisodes” one through five here], each episode just a few minutes long (reflecting the limited capacity of the digital camera, which can only record video for about 15 minutes at a time). Like any other schmo with a home camera and an idea, his plan is to post his videos to the Internet.

Unlike other homemade dramas, however, Cooper’s first episode [here] actually stars a recognizable face: Sugar Hill actor Michael Wright, who turns in a remarkable performance as a celebrity who is not happy that a friend has pointed a Fuji Finepix camera on him.

Actually, Wright is acting out the sequence, with Cooper, filming the scene, pretending to be a Source magazine journalist named “Cooper Michaels,” who, flashbacks establish, was once riding high as a Hollywood producer but is now down on his luck and, Wright assumes, high on drugs.

Annoyed at Wright being several hours late for the interview, “Michaels” complains: “I’m being put on hold in my career again by cats like you, Dr. Dre, Kurupt, Robert Townsend, Benny Medina. All of whom, mind you, blew up on my TV show.”

After doing a slow burn, Wright eventually blasts back with what looks like completely sincere rage: “Life is not no damn TV show! Time for you to change the channel.”

On a first viewing, the six-minute film is disorienting. Is this a real-world encounter between a bitter ex–Hollywood producer and an actor he helped make famous? Or is Cooper pretending to be a bitter ex-filmmaker confronting an actor-friend who’s in on the gag? Either way, it’s remarkable stuff for an iFilm freebie.

Cooper has given his series the unfortunate name Blood on the Wall$, and later episodes has his character spinning out (and exaggerating) other chapters from his own rise and fall as he tries to solve a mystery—the suicide of a talented painter.

The real Barry Michael Cooper does want to return to Hollywood, but on his own terms, he says. He recently finished co-authoring pioneering urban-music mogul Andre Harrell’s autobiography and has plans to release his own book, a collection of essays from the past 30 years. Cooper says that Blood on the Wall$, meanwhile, is more than just a better-than-usual series of Web shorts. “I’m a very eccentric person,” he says. “During the making of this film I found myself. I had to face myself.”