New Jack City Celebrates Silver Anniversary, Iconic Film Enhanced Reputation Of Detroit’s Chambers Brothers

This week marks the 25-year anniversary of the trend-setting gangster movie New Jack City, released on March 8, 1991 and based partially on the exploits of the Chambers Brothers Gang in Detroit. Produced on an 8 million-dollar budget, it went on to make close to 50 million bucks at the box office and is specifically credited with rebooting the entire African-American crime-thriller film genre, a type of movie that hadn’t been made since the 1970s Blaxploitation era but went on to be a staple of 1990s cinema.

Directed by Mario Van Peebles, New Jack City starred Wesley Snipes as fictional drug lord Nino Brown, the ruthless, stylish and charismatic king of the New York crack trade in the 1980s, the leader of a crime syndicate called the Cash Money Brotherhood or just “CMB,” that takes over an entire set of project apartments known as The Carter and makes it the group’s base of operations. Comedian Chris Rock showed off his acting chops as the film’s face of the drug epidemic, Pookie Robinson, a crack fiend-turned-police informant. Rapper Ice-T played police officer Scotty Appleton assigned to go undercover into the CMB and take down Nino Brown at all costs.

New Jack City was written by Barry Michael Cooper and Thomas Lee Wright. The independently-financed, Warner Bros. Pictures-distributed project began with Wright’s screenplay about legendary 1970s Harlem drug baron LeRoy (Nicky) Barnes, probably the most iconic African-American crime boss of the late 20th Century, dubbed “Mr. Untouchable” in a June 1977 cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Cooper rewrote Wright’s original story, using his Village Voice 1987 cover-piece Kids Killing Kids – New Jack City Eats Its’ Young which he penned after traveling to Detroit and observing the activities of the Chambers Brothers Gang, a crew of Southerners who traveled to Michigan from the deep Arkansas Delta and went on to dominate the street-level sale of rock cocaine in the Motor City, as source material and inspiration.

Pint-sized B.J. Chambers started the Chambers Brothers Gang in the early-1980s, having arrived in Detroit a few years earlier from Mariana, Arkansas. He began selling marijuana out of a friend’s convenient store, soon graduating to being the first narcotics trafficker in the city to introduce crack cocaine to his clientele. By the middle of the decade, crack was ravishing the city and B.J. had recruited literally hundreds of workers and soldiers from Arkansas to join him up north and was operating dozens of drug houses spread across town. His primary lieutenants were his three brothers, Willie, Otis and Larry aka “Marlow” aka “Rambo.”

While Willie and teenage Otis worked under B.J., Larry Chambers, the only seasoned felon of the sibling kingpin troop, ran his own crew, assuming control of the Broadmore, an entire apartment complex off Grand Boulevard, the same street that was home to Motown Records. The Broadmore was depicted as The Carter in New Jack City.

Together, B.J. and Larry created the “Crack Commandments,” a set of rules for proper drug dealing etiquette posted on the wall at every Chambers Brothers Gang drug den and immortalized in a rap song written and performed by New York rapper Notorious BIG in 1997. The Nino Brown character in New Jack City was written by Cooper as a composite of B.J. and Larry Chambers and a number of high-profile dope boys Cooper knew of from New York’s grisly drug underworld.

President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, referenced the Chambers Brothers in his nationally-televised speech at the 1988 Democratic Party National Convention in Atlanta, only weeks removed from the gang being indicted in a wide-reaching federal drug case. The hit BET television series American Gangster featured the Chambers Brothers Gang in a 2006 episode.

All of the Chambers brothers, except Larry, are currently free following incurring 20-year plus prison sentences, and reportedly have left their criminal ways in the past, “going legit” in their post-jailbird days. Cooper went on to write Above The Rim and Sugar Hill after New Jack City.

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