High-Flying Saturday Night Live Comic Chris Rock Soars in His New Jack City Film Role
Comedian Chris Rock is on a roll. At the tender age of 23, he's a buddy of Eddie Murphy's, has a regular gig on Saturday Night Live, and his first comedy album, Born Suspect, is due in May. He's also raking in kudos for his first major screen role in New Jack City, about a team of cops who bring down a Harlem, a.k.a. New Jack City, drug lord. "I'm a rich man with options," he boasts. Youthfully cocksure, Rock had no doubts that New Jack would be an explosive hit—but he never expected to be sitting on a powder keg.
Although the film's strong antidrug message supports law and order, sporadic violence marked the March 8 opening. A Massachusetts youth was stabbed in a ticket line, and a Brooklyn teen was shot to death leaving the film. After learning that two evening showings were sold-out, an estimated 1,500 Los Angeles would-be moviegoers rioted, looting stores and vandalizing cars. Rock, like many others, believes the tension in L.A. was sparked by a highly publicized incident of police brutality (seepage 83).
Worried owners of several theaters have stopped showing the film. But many observers insist it's no more provocative than any other hard-edge action movie. A Long Island, N.Y., theatergoer, for instance, was shot to death watching The Godfather Part III last year. Says film critic Roger Ebert about the film's reception: "What's in danger of being lost here is that [New Jack] is a very good antidrug movie." Violence is ubiquitous, he adds, "but if it happens in front of a movie theater where a particular movie is shown, it titillates us to think there's a connection." Says New Jack director and costar Mario Van Peebles: "You don't leave this movie wanting to hurt anybody."
For his part, Rock, who plays a crack addict turned informer, is mostly just surprised at the response. "We've seen the movie a million times before," he says, "it's just that this time black people are in it." Not that he hasn't had a lifetime to get used to volatile emotions. The eldest of the six Rock children, Chris grew up in Brooklyn leading what his mother, Rose, 45, a teacher, calls "a black Brady Bunch existence." (His father, Julius, died in 1988.) But he was bused as a young child to a predominantly white school where classmates called him "nigger." "School was hell," he says. "I was one of those kids running for my life."
To escape the danger and the pressure, Rock dropped out (later earning an equivalency diploma) and worked as a restaurant busboy. His streetwise, politically sharp-edged humor cracked up fellow workers. Soon Rock was hitting local comedy clubs, where he got his break in 1986. The only black comic working at Manhattan's Comic Strip on a night when Eddie Murphy showed up in the audience, Rock says he was "very, very nervous. But Eddie was nice to me."
To say the least. One year later Rock landed a small role in Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop 2. Rock's portrayal of a hip rib-joint customer in 1988's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a spoof of '70s black exploitation films, attracted Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. "I saw a certain sweetness about him that I liked," says Michaels. Signing a five-year contract as one of SNL's featured players was a dream come true. As a child, Rock remembers watching a rerun episode with Garrett Morris, an SNL player until 1980. "I decided right then," he said, "that I wanted to be the black guy on Saturday Night Live."
With SNL appearances and being at work on a screenplay, the comedian is too busy to spend much time in his sparsely furnished Brooklyn home. Even his refrigerator is nearly empty, "I need a girlfriend who can cook," he laughs. Proud of his success and his heritage, Rock remains rooted in the stand-up tradition that has been his profession—and his solace. "Comedy," he has said, "is the blues for people who can't sing."
Karen S. Schneider, Sabrina McFarland in New York City
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