The movie shot on location in Bed-Stuy; Lee hired the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s security wing, to clean out the local crack houses. Jackson said that the neighborhood’s drug dealers held a grudge. When he wandered off the movie’s set and went to a local store, the greeting was: “You acting motherfuckers came in here and ruined our business, we’re gonna fuck you up.”
Jackson wouldn’t back down. “There were some guys they could intimidate, but there were others of us that were like, ‘You know, I just happen to be an actor, but I used to be the same kind of guy you are.’” Veteran actor Ossie Davis, also in the cast, defused more than one confrontation. “We were all pretty crazy during that time,” Jackson said. “Ossie was sort of our balance.”
Jackson spent most of the shoot inside the booth of FM 108 We Love Radio, isolated from the rest of the ensemble, appearing in the background of shots, watching wistfully through the window like a little kid who can’t go out and play until he finishes his homework. Jackson always brought a book to the set: sometimes he’d kill time by reading, sometimes by taking a nap. “Half the time I’d be in there sleeping, because I’d been up pretty much the night before, fucked up, hanging out with my friends,” he said.
When the movie wrapped, Jackson kept hustling, auditioning all over town, accepting any role he was offered. His technique: “I go to the audition, act my brains out, and get picked.”
Jackson had racked up small parts in enough films that his friends nicknamed him “King of the Cameos.” He was a master of making a big impression in a small amount of screen time, even if many of his parts were conceived as generic types—most obviously in the case of the 1989 movie Sea of Love, where his role was actually billed as “Black Guy.” Jackson scoffed, “That was the character name. That’s what it says in the credits: Black Guy.”
On December 14, 1988, Jackson was riding the subway, just like he did most days. As he was getting off his train, exiting the middle door of the last car, he saw that a woman had dropped some of her possessions, so he stopped to help her pick them up. “Very un–New York–like of me,” he noted. While he was leaning over, the subway doors closed on his ankle: most of his body was on the station’s platform, but his right foot was trapped inside the subway car. Then the subway started moving out of the station, pulling Jackson along with the train. As the train accelerated, Jackson lost his balance and fell onto his back, getting dragged along the platform. (Fortunately, he was wearing a backpack, which protected him from a massive head injury.)
As the subway entered the tunnel, Jackson resigned himself to his impending death and the knowledge that it was “going to be a sad Christmas.” And then, just before he smashed into the wall by the tunnel, the train stopped. “A guy on crutches pulled the emergency cord,” Jackson said. He was lucky to be alive, but he was nevertheless hobbled: he suffered a complete tear of his ACL and a partial tear of his meniscus, plus lots of cartilage damage. After his right knee was surgically repaired, he spent ten months on crutches and a year and a half in physical rehab. For the rest of his life, he would have a couple of extra screws in his right leg.
Professionally, the injury took Jackson out of commission for months, but he still participated in the 1989 edition of Spike Lee’s Summer Film Camp (also known as Mo’ Better Blues). Jackson had to play his character, a thug looking to collect a gambling debt, with a conspicuous leg brace and cane. One day, a crew member told Jackson about a job she was doing on the side: the music video for the rap group Public Enemy’s single “911 Is a Joke.” They hadn’t found anybody to play Flavor Flav’s dad in the video— could Jackson come to the Bronx that night? “I had no idea what it was—I just showed up,” Jackson said. His job in the video was basically to stand in the background, wearing black sweats and holding a glass of wine in his hand, looking concerned about his wife, who needed an ambulance. With his trademark clock around his neck, Flavor Flav seized the foreground, rapping about the deficiencies of emergency services in Black neighborhoods and mugging for the camera. The video was an all-night shoot: off-camera, Jackson and Flav hung out together, drinking and smoking weed.
Once he healed, Jackson kept auditioning, while his peers kept landing major projects. “You feel like you’re on the same level talentwise and you go to an audition and you know you rocked it, but you didn’t get it, and you wonder why,” Jackson said. “I would go to an audition and my eyes are a little too red or I smell like that beer I drank before I went to the audition, or whatever, and I didn’t get the job.”
The writer and film producer Nelson George ran into Jackson on 57th Street around this time; Jackson accosted him, trying to see if George could get him any work. “This was the height of the crack era in New York City,” George said. “I didn’t really know at the time that he had a drug problem, but he didn’t need to tell me. I could see: he looked feral.���