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Black Stories Film Series #5:
“Juice” (1992) directed and co-written by Ernest R. Dickerson, the cinematographer for many of Spike Lee’s films including “Do The Right Thing” (1991). Juice, named after a slang term in the 1990’s that means respect and power, is a film about a group of young men who fight to get just that within their community. Similar to the other films in the series thus far, such as “Boyz N The Hood” and “Straight Out Of Brooklyn,” the story reflects the desperation of growing up in areas surrounded by violence. These films are a response to the films that came prior, which had the tendency to glamorize violence in urban areas, these stories ground this idea by humanizing those who are trapped in this kind of unforgiving environment, and experiencing the consequences.
We meet our group of teens as they are awaken by their parents and get ready for the day. There is Q (Omar Epps), Raheem (Khalil Kain), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and the more domineering Bishop (Tupac Shakur). This is the first feature for all these young actors with the exception of Hopkins who debuted in “Stand by Me” six years prior. Initially, the film saunters along in a seemingly aimless way – Steel and Raheem bring levity and talk about girls, Bishop is agitated, Q is the most ambitious one of the group and his life revolves around fulfilling his dream of becoming a disc jockey in a club. All of this, though, allows viewers to develop affection for the characters and understand their lives. They may steal a record once in a while from the local shop, but they are not criminals. This is important, because there is a sense that these young men are relatively harmless, come from supportive homes, and their greatest hassle is the relentless attitudes of neighborhood bullies. We watch as a seed is planted when the group manages to get their hands on a gun, which changes everything. It seems as though the existence of the gun places a pressure on the boys to use it.
This is a story about what happens when young men try to establish their toughness without the proper guidance on how to do that with morality, integrity, dignity and restraint. These boys could have used a few lessons from “Boyz N The Hood”s Furious Styles. As they attempt to out-macho each other, demonstrate dominance in their community and within their group, and “get the juice,” this film illustrates how quickly violent situations escalate to a point of no return. There is a fantastic scene where Q is riding the healthy high of just completing a successful gig as a DJ, when he sees the solemn faces of his friends waiting for him to commit a robbery with them. He had been reluctant to do it, and it is in this moment that he has no way out without ruffling some feathers.
“Juice” ultimately uses its time to tell the story of loss of innocence and the fear, desperation and lack of opportunity that tends to drive violence. It moves from a light hearted teenage tale to a horror film in a small space of time – the same way this can happen in real life.
Much of the success of the film relies on the superb acting by this young cast. Tupac Shakur grabbed the role of Bishop somewhat incidentally while accompanying his buddy, Anthony “Treach” Criss, to the audition. He decided to try for the role himself, even throwing a chair during the performance, and landed it. (He ended up talking the casting directors into giving Treach a small role as well). During this time, Shakur was still relatively unknown. During filming, Omar Epps remembers him writing lyrics in his notebook in between takes, and around the same time of the films release came his debut rap album “2Pacalypse Now” which provided commentary on the current social issues facing American society, like racism, police brutality, poverty, black on black crime, and teenage pregnancy.
As a white person who is only finally in summer of the year 2020 viewing most of these films for the first time, it is startling and disappointing that many of these issues still work against society today, especially against people of color in America, and it has taken so long for much of white America to start listening to these cries for help which have been widely accessible in pop culture for at least 30 years.
Tupac Shakur gained immediate notability following this film and the release of his record, and went on to become one of the most significant rappers of all time, up until his tragic murder (drive by shooting) in 1996. His legacy lives on, as many posthumous studio albums were released in the years 1996-2006, and he was inducted into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame in 2002. At Coachella in 2012, during a Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre set, Tupac (2Pac) appeared on stage in the form of a hologram and “performed” to a boisterous, adoring crowd. There is something eerie and profound about watching the film that helped initiate his popularity and career, which focuses so heavily on black on black violence, bearing the knowledge of his devastating death only 4 years later and his lasting footprint on society.
Ultimately, “Juice” is entertaining and well-done, but not overly remarkable in the context of all the similar films that sweeped this time. It is an adrenaline pumping thrill, a horror movie in disguise, and a charming nineties drama.
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