New Jack, the new documentary about former Extreme Championship Wrestling combatant Jerome Young, aka “New Jack,” dispenses with the obvious fact that most wrestling is, in a sense, fake: At one point we see New Jack at a 2019 match at a small venue in Lynn, Massachusetts, working out the details of a match with an opponent beforehand.
But as the doc shows, again and again, the things New Jack was most famous for couldn’t be faked. His trademarks included jumping or falling as far as 40 feet, cutting his scarred head open with concealed razorblades for “color,” and pounding opponents into doors, guitars and other implements of destruction he delivered to the ring via flying trash can.
Watching New Jack, a new Slamdance doc from directors Danny Lee and Noah Lee, you will come away with no doubt that his most brutal and punishing attacks — on himself and others — were painfully real. Though the Lees don’t try to play psychologist, they don’t need to: The horrible childhood Young describes speaks for itself.
As he explains onscreen, he was regularly beaten as a child, his father stabbed his mother repeatedly, and his father’s habit of carrying a blade everywhere inspired his own. His father also shot his mother, who survived. His father died when he was very young, and he misses him, despite his violent ways. But he despises his mother.
He was a college football player, bounty hunter and drug dealer before getting into wrestling. His pre-wrestling past also includes a two-year prison sentence for pistol-whipping a jewelry store clerk.
Though Young seems willing to answer any question, New Jack keeps a dispassionate distance from its subject, in part through its music. His entrance music was “Natural Born Killaz,” by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, but the film’s soundtrack feels more suited to an early 2000s Wes Anderson movie. One of the first needle drops is the Velvet Underground’s hypnotic “Pale Blue Eyes.” It feels as if the directors are deliberately pulling us out of New Jack’s violent world, and into one that’s more poetic and vulnerable. I can’t guess why they would choose to do this.
Many questions aren’t deeply explored. New Jack, who took his name from the drug drama New Jack City, riled up predominantly white and rural wrestling fans in the Smoky Mountain Wrestling association by personifying racist stereotypes. He paired with Mustafa Saed in a tag team called The Gangstas, wearing Raiders gear and claiming South Central Los Angeles. (Young was actually from North Carolina.)
In one interview, he congratulated “my homeboy O.J. Simpson,” accused of murdering his estranged white wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her white friend, Ron Goldman.
“Keep up the good work, baby,” New Jack declared. “Two less we got to worry about.”
Young says in the doc that many of the fans had never met Black people before. He doesn’t talk about whether he felt any regret about deliberately feeding into their worst prejudices to help a white-owned wrestling operation make money.
He moved from the Smoky Mountain Wrestling to the Extreme Championship Wrestling group in 1995, where he left his most inflammatory gibes behind for increasingly dangerous performances. In one match, he explains that he yanked opponent Vic Grimes off a scaffolding when Grimes expressed concern about a planned fall. They went down 20 feet, had a bad landing, and Young was left with impaired memory and blindness in his right eye, among other injuries.
New Jack joins a long line of wrestling documentaries that follow a similar arch: A once-thriving wrestler nurses horrendous injuries in later life. My favorite of these is Steve Yu’s 2015 documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, which also debuted at Slamdance. In that film, Jake “The Snake” Roberts struggles to rebuild his life with help from fellow ring veteran Diamond Dallas Page. It’s about two very unusual people, but the struggle against addiction and hopelessness feels universal.
New Jack is notable for the way it nonchalantly surprises us with the reveal that Young had a lovely and seemingly quite normal family: He and his wife were together for three decades. His image as a loving dad and husband is at odds with his reputation as a guy who stabbed opponents without warning. But this also goes unexplored.
It is also interesting to see how the last days of a once-popular wrestler play out: We see him playing small venues, hurting everywhere. The interactions between him and the other wrestlers is moving. They’re honored to fight him. His feelings about them, and fighting relative unknowns, aren’t so clear.
It wasn’t until the end of the doc that I realized these were the last days of New Jack, who died of a heart attack last year, at 58. It’s possible that this kept the filmmakers from asking all the questions they would have liked to ask, but the final intentions of New Jack just weren’t clear to me. What does this one-hour documentary add to the chronicles of New Jack’s career that already include a memoir and a 2020 Vice doc, also made with Young’s participation?
Is there some comment here on exploitation, or grim compromise? Young makes it very clear that he doesn’t want pity from anyone. The worst-case scenario is that we’re just gawking at a painful life to the tune of an ironically distanced soundtrack. I don’t know. But I kept watching New Jack, like a wrestling match too bloody to believe.
New Jack is now playing at the Slamdance Film Festival and is available on the Slamdance Channel.
Main image: Jerome Young, aka “New Jack,” in the documentary New Jack.