Twenty-five years ago, longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson made a deep impression with his directorial debut, Juice, a hip-hop-era film noir revolving around four teenage boys growing up in Harlem at a time when crack and violence were first emerging as devastating norms for urban youths. Juice, released Jan. 17, 1992, introduced both Omar Epps (“Q”) and Tupac Shakur (“Bishop”) as actors.
Earlier this month, a commemorative Blu-ray Disc was released. It features a new alternate ending, vintage footage of Dickerson directing Tupac and Epps, cast interviews, as well as interviews with musical artists like Eric B. and EPMD, who appeared on the soundtrack, and Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee, who scored the film. A Digital HD release of the remastered film is also available for streaming.
Although Juice is often compared to John Singleton’s 1991 Oscar-nominated debut film, Boyz n the Hood, set in Los Angeles, Dickerson says, “When we started our movie, we knew nothing about Boyz n the Hood. We didn’t even know it existed, didn’t know it had been shot.” Much like Boyz n the Hood, however, Juice tapped into the unprecedented challenges that black youths faced.
Interestingly, Dickerson’s initial inspiration came from the classic coming-of-age memoir Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown, published in 1965.
“I always wanted to do [a film version of] Manchild in the Promised Land, the famous book that I grew up with, because I was always fascinated with the stories of [Brown] growing up in Harlem during those times,” says Dickerson, who collaborated with Spike Lee on many of his classic films, including She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Malcolm X.
“It was kind of like my growing up in Newark[, N.J.,] during the 1950s and ’60s. And I wanted to do a film noir, and I just had the idea that it would be great to do a film noir where the main characters were 16- and 17-year-olds.”
But Dickerson also knew that he had to create a film that spoke to that time, not his. “When [screenwriter] Gerard [Brown] and I started to investigate this for the screenplay, we started seeing the growing prevalence of guns in so many neighborhoods and how guns were becoming a part of beefs between people,” he notes.
“When we were growing up, you had a beef with somebody, you boxed it out, you duked it out, you fought with your fist. But now it got to the point where people were shooting each other. It was horrifying,” he adds.
The premise of four friends growing up in Harlem entrenched in hip-hop culture who, at the prodding of Bishop, become more criminally engaged, even resulting in homicide, struck a serious chord. What some critics failed to see, young people did not miss. When NBC News covered a deadly high school shooting involving two friends and asked how this could happen, the journalists were told to “go see that movie Juice, and it will tell you exactly how,” which prompted them to call on Dickerson.
“We also found out that several mentoring groups, like 100 Black Men, were taking kids to the theaters to see Juice, since they felt that it really addressed the issues of peer pressure,” Dickerson says. “Church groups were taking kids to see Juice because they thought it talked about the forces that were affecting their lives.”
While Dickerson admits that he is far from a hip-hop aficionado, now or then, he can’t deny its power, which is why he made Q a DJ. “I was really fascinated with this new art form that was coming out, not just the vocals with the rap, but also the scratching and the mixing, which was actually using turntables as a musical instrument, a whole new type of musical instrument,” he says. “I thought having Q being a rapper would have been too easy. [Being a DJ] made him more of a kid who probably could have been playing tenor saxophone or trumpet or guitar. But since he didn’t have that, he used the turntables.”
While Khalil Kain as Raheem, and Jermaine Hopkins as Steel, rounded out the “Wrecking Crew,” it was Epps and Tupac who burned up the screen. “Omar was in his senior year in high school, and at that time, he was deciding he was going to undertake a singing career or an acting career, and I guess we helped to change his mind. He did such a good job in his audition for Q. He was always my first choice in that role,” Dickerson recalls.
Epps’ character, though a teenager, was also in a relationship with an older woman, played by En Vogue’s Cindy Herron, whom Dickerson insists “was perfect for that role.” That aspect of Q’s life also came from Dickerson’s research.
“When we were planning the script, I was interviewing some friends of my brother-in-law who were young teenagers in Harlem, and one of them was having an affair with a young divorcee, so I thought that was interesting,” Dickerson explains.
Tupac, who tagged along with Digital Underground member Money B, auditioned on the spot. “We didn’t know who Tupac was. He was still a background dancer and a roadie for Digital Underground,” Dickerson says.
But Tupac brought even more to the role than Dickerson could have dreamed. “The thing that he came with, that he understood about Bishop, was the pain that forces Bishop to make the decision that he makes,” Dickerson explains.
“It’s easy to come in and act ballistic and go crazy in front of the camera, but to have a depth, to have a reason for that, that was the most amazing thing about Tupac because he brought that in his audition, and then later on we found out that Tupac had actually trained as an actor at the Baltimore School for the Arts,” Dickerson says. “So he was a young, trained actor already, and he created a character that I believed in.
“That’s one of the things that you look for in an audition,” Dickerson continues. “Do I believe what this actor is doing? Do I believe that they understand this character and can really make this person live and breathe on film? And Tupac did that.”
Twenty-five years later, Dickerson is pleased with Juice’s legacy. “I am glad that people still respond to it as positively as they do and that it still means something to them,” he says.