*When thinking of “New Jack City,” Nino Brown immediately comes to mind.
For many, Wesley’ Snipes’ portrayal of the ruthless drug kingpin ranks right up there with Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface.” While moviegoers got their Nino fix in spades with seeing him on the big screen back in the ‘90s, their first look at the character came courtesy of famed artist-graphic designer Art Sims, the man who created the iconic “New Jack City” movie poster.
Looming large over three cops (played by Ice-T, Judd Nelson and “New Jack City” director Mario Van Peebles), Nino commands the spotlight wearing shades in a cloud of smoke with a gun in his hand. In a time where good guys dominated movie posters, Sims gambled and won big with a different take that perfectly captured who and what “New Jack City” centered on after reading the film’s script.
“I knew this was about a guy who was running a crack business and in the most successful crack business in the United States,” Sim told EURweb associate Chris Richburg while recalling Warner Brother’s reaction to what he had in mind. ” I was talking about the ideas and I was showing them to Joel Wayne, the studio’s vice president of creative advertising]. He saw my ideas had Wesley as the large predominant star of the film. He said ‘Alright. You can’t make Wesley bigger than these guys because he’s the bad guy.
“And I said ‘That’s not true.’ When I read the script, Wesley was the star of the film. I mean he’s the guy and he has to be the most powerful image in the marketing of the film.”
Despite feeling that making the three cops bigger than Nino was not the way to go, Sims went ahead and produced bigger images of the lawmen in action. The only thing was “they just weren’t powerful enough” for Sims, who fell on his initial idea and upped the ante with a BB gun he had on hand.
“I was trying to come up with a really amazing image. I was posing with the gun and I’m at the table and I said, ‘How can I make Wesley a badass dude that’s gonna blow your ass away if you show up?’” the 11:24 Design CEO said. “And so I came up with this I idea. I had the gun. I had my shirt off. I was at the table and I had the gun. The gun was pointing and I pointed the gun down like the image is. Then I had the back of my hand on top with a cigarette like he’s waiting to blow your ass away. He’s got the gun pointed down with his hand with his cigarette and he’s gonna blow your ass away.”
From there, Sims brought in a model to replicate his pose. Although Sims was satisfied with his image, Warner Bros. had a different opinion about the thick smoke covering the model’s face.
“I was trying to do the image with the smoke where he blew the smoke out of his mouth, but the smoke was so thick that it covered his face and you couldn’t see his face…it looked really cool,” Sims recalled. “I did that but Warner Bros. was like ‘Well, we need to see Wesley’s face. If we’re going to do the big show, we need to see his face and you got to take the smoke off of his face. We gotta see his face.’”
Honoring the studio’s request, Sims lessened the smoke and only used Snipes’ head for his picture. The sight of the “Blade” star wearing sunglasses in a “New Jack City” movie photo provided what Sims needed to use a pre-Photoshop method to transfer Snipes’ head on to model’s body, which remained intact.
“I wanted it to look like that was really Wesley,” Sims stated. “The goal was to come up with this idea of the gun wasn’t pointing at you, but he’s holding the gun with his finger on the trigger like he could blow you away. That was the purpose of it, to make it look like I’m waiting for you to come get me and I’m gonna kill you.”
“I just wanted to show in the image the negative of guns and drugs and the guy with the sunglasses. You couldn’t see his eyes, which is by design that it sends a very evil message, a very bad message. That’s why I went with the dark blue [background] to make it dark and kind of evil-looking,”he added while pointing out how Nino’s large size in the poster emphasized his opinion about the cops.
“These cops were small and he didn’t care about them… I was smoking the drugs right in front of you, so what? Whatever you try to do to try to stop it, I will take this gun that’s pointing at the table and I will point it at you and I will kill you.”
While Sims got his ideal image, Snipes was not sold on being seen in sunglasses.
“Wesley was talking about ‘Well why don’t you take off the sunglasses so people can see my eyes’ and I said ‘Naw, man. This is a cool image of you. You’re a badass. You’re Nino Brown. We don’t wanna see your eyes. We just wanna get the feeling that you’re just ready to blow somebody’s ass away. So we don’t want to see your eyes,’” Sims said about Snipes, who later put his trust in him. “I had to talk him out of that because he wanted everybody to see his eyes. You know, he’s the star. He wants everybody to see everything, but I was able to convince him not to do that.”
Snipes may have been a bit of a challenge, but Warner Bros. proved to be a lingering one as Nino’s lit cigarette provided another obstacle as Wayne campaigned for an unlit cigarette for the “New Jack City” poster. As it turned out, the request proved to be a blessing in disguise for Sims, who discovered the realism the unlit cigarette brought to the picture.
“When I did the image, the cigarette was lit, it was red. At the end of the day it made it looked like you were smoking crack it and it was on fire,” Sims said. “Actually in a way, when you look at it, it kinda looks like crack anyway because if you’re smoking crack, you don’t see a fire lit. You don’t see the lit ash. You don’t see that. I think it was even better that we didn’t have it lit but the smoke was coming out of it…it was a powerful image man.”
In all, the poster took six months to create. On March 8, 1991, “New Jack City” arrived in theaters and became a certified hit. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the film, which is still regarded as a classic in the eyes of many. Although the success of the film and its hit-packed soundtrack were expected, what Sims didn’t expect was for the popularity to bring news coverage and those who wanted the poster for themselves.
“I was like ‘Oh my god. Some people liked it so much that they actually went to the bus stop and tore open the [glass case], thinking they could get the poster out. That’s crazy.’ That’s the first time that I ever had a poster that people liked it so much that they actually started tearing open the bus stops to get the poster and it was on the news,” Sims said, noting how the frenzy attracted the attention of director Spike Lee, who couldn’t believe the fan reaction.
“Spike even said to me ‘Art I’ve been hearing that they’ve been taking the poster and they’re like tearing up the bus stops up to get the poster,” said Sims, who took a humorous approach with his response. “I said ‘Spike I told you. I’m a badass art director. I told you. It worked.’ I said ‘my work is the shit Spike. It’s no joke. It makes people get excited, man.’
“And Spike said ‘I can’t believe it. Why are they doing this?’ I said, ‘Spike, it’s is what marketing is, man. Look man. How many times do you see a beautiful image of a brother with a gun that looks so cool that you had to have that?” he continued.
“First of all, you don’t see many images like that anyway of people of color. And then secondly, you see it and you ain’t gonna be able to buy it nowhere. I actually was honored that people were feeling the poster. I was happy about that and I think Wesley was happy too… Wesley loved it. He told me. He said ‘It was just incredible. I love it.’”
Prior to and since “New Jack City,” Sims has amassed a catalog of movie posters, many of which for Lee. Films he done work for include Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “Mo Better Blues” as well as “The Color Purple,” “Love and Basketball,” “King of New York,” and “Red Tails.” These posters are among those featured in “Movie And Messages: The Movie Posters & Early Works of Art Sims,” an new exhibit currently on display at the Maryme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City, CA.
Looking back on “New Jack City” and the poster he designed, Sims admits the poster deserves to be ranked among his best, given the public’s love for the image and the film it’s eternally attached to.
“I think to this day people see the poster and they love it man. I didn’t rank it up there with ‘Do the Right Thing,’ but I think I have to in many ways,” he said. “Remember when ‘New Jack City’ came out and then the soundtrack came and the soundtrack was dope too? I mean everything on that movie — the movie, the soundtrack. It was unstoppable.”
“I’m glad that it was very well received. I’m happy that people still like it after 25 years,” Sim shared, along with his hopes of the movie poster being featured in the legendary Christie’s auction. “They say one picture is worth a thousand words. I hope one day I get accepted into the Christie acution where it gets auctioned off for very large amount of money because I thought it was a very powerful image. It deserves to be auctioned off and become very successful.”