Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Premise: A group of youths living in Harlem become frustrated with their feelings of powerlessness. In the pursuit of respect and street cred, they decide to rob a local store. When the heist goes sideways the young men turn on each other.
What Works: In the early 1990s there was a niche of street films that primarily told stories of young African American men and the perils of life in the inner city. Titles such as Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood provided fresh stories and introduced new talent to mainstream audiences. Among the better films of this period was 1992’s Juice. A lot of artifacts from early 1990’s hip-hop culture have not aged well but this film has. Much of its success is due to the film’s gritty reality and its well-drawn characters. Director Ernest R. Dickerson, who was the cinematographer on Spike Lee’s early films such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, has a feel for the setting of this story. Admirably, the filmmakers do not make the streets of Harlem an unnecessarily frightening place and it doesn’t wallow in the blight of inner city life. But Juice does capture the tone and texture of life in this time and place in a way that feels authentic. Juice also doesn’t glamorize criminality. In the 1990s, rap music and hip hop culture and some of the films that sprung out of that moment were accused of romanticizing gang life and indeed some of them did. Juice does not do that and in fact it has a smart but subtle commentary on that accusation. The young men are inspired to commit a robbery after watching a television broadcast of the James Cagney picture White Heat. Having these young men respond to a 1940s crime picture rather than the lyrics of N.W.A. (however unlikely that might be) points to the way villainy and violence are glamorized across American culture. This moment also contrasts with the tone of the second half of the picture. After spending their days bullied by a local Puerto Rican gang and evading arrest for truancy by the police, the young men turn to crime as a way of earning glory and respect. When the robbery results in death, the relationship between these young men implodes and they are put in a perpetual state of fear instead of inspiring fear in others. Far from glamorizing street crime, Juice is a tragedy and it has parallels with the teenage delinquency movies of the 1950s such as Rebel Without a Cause as well as the street films of the 1970s like The French Connection. The tragic quality of Juice works so well because of the central cast which includes Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, Tupac Shakur, and Jermaine Hopkins. Each of the young men is a distinct character and together they possess a vibrant masculine camaraderie. The action turns is driven by Epps and Shakur’s characters. As Q, Omar Epps play a young man with musical talent who is forced to make moral choices and he comes into conflict with Bishop, played by Tupac Shakur. Shakur is frightening but with depth and his performance displays the talent and charisma that would later make him a star.
What Doesn’t: There is a disconnect in Juice between the violent turn that the story takes and the home lives of these young men. All of the central characters are depicted as living with loving and stable households. Bishop has a catatonic father but that doesn’t provide sufficient motivation for him to become a killer. Tupac Shakur is quite good in the role of Bishop but the character’s transformation occurs too quickly. In an instant he turns from an angry but sociable young man and into a psychopath. The film doesn’t adequately plum the roots of his anger and the story doesn’t build up to the decision to rob the store. Once the robbery takes place Juice really takes off but the storytelling prior to that moment comes across a little forced.
DVD extras: The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Juice includes a commentary track, featurettes, interviews, and a photo gallery.
Bottom Line: Twenty-five years after its release, Juice remains an effective street film. The movie has action and bravado but the lasting impression is one of tragedy in a story of youth coping with the repercussions of violence.
Episode: #653 (June 25, 2017)