Ernest Dickerson’s first film, Juice (power or influence, earned respect) – a kind of urban noir – follows four longtime friends as they try to survive their lives in Harlem.
The four leads were either high school kids of seventeen, or just a bit older – Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, and (before he ever recorded a note) Tupac Shakur.
The Juice 25th Anniversary Blu-ray is in stores today.
The Riverside Wrecking Crew is four friends: Q (Epps) Raheem (Kain), Steel (Hopkins) and Bishop (Shakur). They spend their days skipping school and/or trying to figure out what to do with their lives, but only Q really has a plan – he’s a local (considered a bit of a put down) DJ developing his own, unique scratching and mixing sound.
Bishop may not have a handle on what he wants to do, but he knows he doesn’t want to go to prison and wind up like his now mentally challenged dad.
Rahim and Steel are more living in the moment: Rahim the more serious one who is the natural leader of the crew; Steel the fun-loving one – who gets so absorbed by playing video games that he doesn’t even the police entering the pool hall/arcade. (The pool hall/arcade is owned by Trip – brought to life coolly by Samuel L. Jackson.)
Over the course of the film, we see Q, the primary protagonist, as he visits his older, divorced girlfriend, Yolanda (En Vogue’s Cindy Herron) and audition for – and take part in – a DJ competition (run by Queen Latifah’s Ruffhouse MC) before things go seriously askew.
As Q’s life seems to be going in a good direction, Bishop’s is not – leading to a convenience store robbery that goes wrong and Bishop going over an unseen edge into kind of psychotic break (his being harassed by another crew probably played a large part, too). Eventually, the film will come down to B and Q.
Dickerson’s first film as director (he previously worked with Spike Lee on a number of his films) is sharp-edged and murky in the noir manner – witness Q’s remark to the detectives who question him at one point, ‘I see three n—-s in a room with cops. If you want us to be guilty, we’ll be guilty.
The film’s light reflects the New York neighborhood, as well. It’s never sunny in a place where everyone lives in apartments crowded in on each other, adding more than a little claustrophobia to these boys’ lives.
The four leads – especially Epps (who has had a very successful career since) and Shakur – are almost extraordinarily good, giving the film a very solid base.
It’s a pity that Dickerson was forced by the studio to change the ending – the one they wanted dilutes the power of the anti-gun stance that the film takes.
Even with the reshot finale, Juice still packs a wallop after twenty-five years – and the extras add quite a bit of value to the anniversary package:
Audio Commentary by Dickerson (more anecdotal than technical, Dickerson gives us a picture of what the shoot was like – and what his four stars went through to make it); You’ve Got the Juice Now (Dickerson and cast members reflect on making the film twenty-years later); The Wrecking Crew (a look at the cast); Sip the Juice: The Music (various artists recall their part in the film; Dickerson talks about Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad), and Stay in the Scene: The Interview (interview with the four leads on a rooftop in Harlem).
Juice: Grade – B+
Extras Grade: A
Final Grade: A-