Unsung Auteurs: Barry Michael Cooper

October 19, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, who penned New Jack City and Above The Rim.

With the writers’ strike hopefully at close-to-resolution point in the US, we’ll still be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. The prevalence of African-American culture – and especially pop culture – is now such a given that it’s difficult to remember a time when it existed in a far less dominant and recognisable form. There was a time when rap and hip hop were on the rise, rather than on the top, and when significant African-American voices in film were few and far between. Now, shows like The Wire, Power, Godfather Of Harlem and a litany of others have made the criminal aspect of African-American culture (and yes, there is a whole lot more to African-American culture than just that) instantly familiar to those all around the world.

It’s difficult to remember just how alien and unusual that world felt (especially so far away in Australia) when we saw it on screen in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Coming after Dennis Hopper’s 1988 cop drama Colors (which fascinatingly detailed African-American culture, but through a distinctly white – and now much debated – prism), Spike Lee’s masterful Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991) and John Singleton’s incendiary Boyz N The Hood (1991) literally exploded onto the world scene, awash with hip hop, and African-American culture, characters and concerns.

Barry Michael Cooper

Now held in less cherished regard due to its considerably more commercial and less socially driven qualities, there was another vital African-American film of the time: 1991’s New Jack City. The film marked the directorial debut of actor and TV director (and son of seminal African-American cinematic force Melvin Van Peebles) Mario Van Peebles; the first major screen role of master rapper Ice-T (now a longtime player on Law & Order: SVU); and the breakout performance of Wesley Snipes, who would also star in that same year’s aforementioned Jungle Fever. Slickly and energetically directed, New Jack City tells of Scarface-style drug dealer and crime heavyweight Nino Brown (Snipes), and the efforts of a streetwise black cop (Ice-T) to bring him down. The film was a major hit, and helped to send African-American culture supernova, instantly involving white audiences in its cool, highly credible allure.

At the centre of the success of New Jack City’s success was writer Barry Michael Cooper, a seminal but still largely under-celebrated cinematic figure. He gave New Jack City its authenticity, and provided much of the insider knowledge with its look at the manufacture and dealing of the then nascent drug of crack cocaine. Born and raised in New York City in various mixed-race communities, Barry Michael Cooper began his writing career with the famous alternative publication The Village Voice, where he did music reviews and eventually moved into investigative journalism. He is credited with creating the music term “new jack swing”, and was one of the first to document the rise of crack cocaine and its horribly deleterious effect on the black community with his Village Voice feature “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young.”

Mario Van Peebles and Ice-T in New Jack City.

The powerful article brought Cooper to the attention of high-powered music producer and film dabbler Quincy Jones, who tapped the journalist to put together a feature film script on 1970s African-American crime lord Nicky Barnes. Though that film never panned out, Cooper reshaped many of the ideas that he had come across in his research, when he was brought on to contribute to the existing screenplay for New Jack City by white writer Thomas Lee Wright. The film’s depiction of the ins and outs of a black crime empire is one of its true strengths, and Cooper’s history of investigative journalism was obviously a major force in the creation of that milieu. New Jack City remains a vital work in the epochal era of African-American film of the late 1980s an early 1990s, and Barry Michael Cooper was an essential ingredient in its success.

Since the success of New Jack City, Barry Michael Cooper has remained an important figure in African-American popular culture, penning two more vital works. 1993’s Sugar Hill was directed by Leon Ichaso (Bitter Sugar, Pinero) and stars Wesley Snipes as a drug dealer trying to turn over a new leaf and get out of the life…which proves much more difficult than he imagined. Closing out what would later be termed his “Harlem Trilogy” was the Cooper-penned 1994 drama Above The Rim, which follows three disparate brothers (Duane Martin, Leon and the late Tupac Shakur) who intersect at the world of drugs and professional basketball. Written with Cooper’s characteristic sense of punch, depth, and authenticity, these films lack the higher profile of New Jack City, but their importance cannot be overstated.

Also working on the TV version of Spike Lee’s classic film She’s Gotta Have It, Barry Michael Cooper might not be one of the loudest voices in African-American cinema, but he’s certainly one of its most skillful, creative and formative.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Gladys Hill, Walon GreenEleanor BergsteinWilliam W. NortonHelen ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz Garbus, Victor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.