Juice is a 1992 hood thriller that marks the directorial debut of Spike Lee’s cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson (also co-writer). The film’s narrative follows four aimless black teenagers in early 90’s Harlem, and how one act of senseless violence quickly devolves into a horrific nightmare. The film's themes are strong and blatant--violence is perpetuated by readily obtainable weapons, and gives perceived power to the powerless. That power is the ‘Juice’. It's unfortunate that the film meanders around a silly D.J. plot and relies on a cartoonish evil villain to propel the film.
Our story follows Quincy, ‘Q’ for short, (Omar Epps) in a Harlem neighborhood in the early 90’s. Q and his friends, who call themselves “The Wrecking Crew” are just kids who skip school to hang out, play games, or commit petty crime. Q is their straight man, Raheem is seen as the ladies' man and leader, Steel is the fat comedic relief, while Bishop is the volatile wildcard. Only Q and Bishop get much characterization however. Steel is lovable as the fat punching bag but that’s all he is to the group, but Raheem has the potential for some depth as the group's leader in addition to having baby mother issues at such a young age. Sadly, Raheem isn’t given much time to develop before everything goes belly up.
Q, despite skipping school for extended periods, does have a dream of being a professional D.J. It’s a shame that the actual D.J. competition becomes an incomprehensible mess. It’s difficult to tell who’s winning the crowd over and most importantly, why? Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in this era I don’t understand the competitive ‘D.J.ing’ (if you do, and can explain why Q won and not the previous champion from Flatbush please do so in the comments). Furthermore, while it helps define Q’s character, the D.J. subplot is given too much screen time. Worse, the film drops this plot thread and delves into the unraveling psyche of Bishop and the results of his maniacal actions.
Tupac Shakur definitely overcompensates in this film as Bishop and ultimately undermines his own character. He seems to have deep psychotic issues but they aren’t properly explained or defined. At one point the entire crew is hanging out and he goes on a megalomaniacal rant about wanting to die in a blaze of glory and in the same breath calling his friends bitches for not wanting to follow suit. He’s shown being bullied, but his friends always have his back, and he never seems to be in mortal danger. Bishop wants money, yet they seem to have money to buy things, and have no problem obtaining a gun (even though in a later scene when Q is trying to obtain one to protect himself he has woefully inadequate funds). But once Bishop gets a gun, he convinces his friends to rob a minimart, and in the process, commits a horrific and senseless act of violence. As a result, Bishop begins to have an unquenchable bloodlust because of the perceived power, control, and an almost unobtainable high-- the “Juice”. He then uses aggressive tough guy posturing as a mask for his nihilistic and psychotic psyche. His end is extremely fitting, going out with a whimper and not the bang he deeply craves.
Bishop longs to be a hardened gangster but in reality he’s more of a cartoonish villain. Appearing silently behind lockers or stepping out from behind something is neat for a dramatic effect, but by the end I was laughing out loud when he appeared out of the shadows like a malevolent Batman. Bishop is thus reduced to a caricature of a truly sinister villain, one who acts for plot driven contrived reasons. Which truly is a shame since his character is supposed to represent one who was tragically seduced by the allure of the gun. He seems like a bad egg from the start. He always wears all black, and he is the first to want to do something violent and stupid. Despite the film spending the first quarter with our four main characters as they go about their normal routines, I never really got the impression that they were actually friends. They don’t have very good chemistry, and they argue and fight all the time about trivial nonsense. The film doesn’t take the time to give anyone other than Q and Bishop much depth. So what we end up with is a film about three guys and the closeted psycho they choose to hang out with.
The style of this film is dripping in 90’s culture. Their clothing and mannerisms seem almost like a parody of Harlem in the early 90’s rather than a faithful reproduction. The ending in particular is a particularly well shot chase scene through a trippy party while the film melts into a visual nightmare. In addition, like the vastly superior film, Boyz n the Hood, there are few females in the film, and they aren’t given much characterization at all besides being adjacent family members, mothers, or sex objects. Juice focuses instead on the four main male characters and their plight showing how the innocent trappings of everyday black youth can quickly turn violent. The film demonstrates with alarming regularity that a minority neighborhood is a dangerous place to reside--especially with harassment from gangs, simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and arguments that can spiral violently out of control. The film admirably tries to convey how testosterone filled machismo and easily obtainable weapons can conceal and enable someone’s deeply psychotic impulses.
Roger Ebert in his review of the film said, “It’s a common criticism of cinematographers that when they direct their own films, they pay too much attention to style, not enough to the story.” And I agree with him on this point, but disagree with him in regard to Dickerson’s direction, which he goes on to praise. Juice unfortunately falls into the trap of style over substance. It’s a very visually distinctive film with a decent narrative and fitting ending. In spite of that, the film falls prey to plot contrivances, unfinished narrative threads, uneven characterization, and to some over acting by Tupac. Still, it’s worth a watch for Dickerson’s style and feel for the Harlem neighborhoods which he manages to capture with ease. More importantly, the film manages to address the power, false allure, and horror that a gun embodies.
TLDR: Juice is an uneven film about machismo, power, and powerlessness of young black males in early 90’s Harlem; which gains steam at its halfway point through violent self actualization. 2.5/5 Stars
Ebert, Roger. "Juice Movie Review & Film Summary (1992) | Roger Ebert." All Content. Chicago Sun-Times, 17 Jan. 1992. Web. Feb. 2016. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/juice-1992>.