"It's not a Hip-Hop movie. It's a real good movie that happens to have Hip-Hop in it..."
That's how a young rapper/actor named Tupac Shakur described his first film, Juice, in 1992. Shakur was brand new to both Hollywood and Hip-Hop; but he was already becoming one of the most talked-about new faces in urban entertainment. He'd dropped his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, near the end of 1991; and that album, while selling modestly, generated a wealth of controversy. Pac was accused of advocating violence against the police, and his first single "Trapped," admonished police brutality. That single had been released in September of 1991, just before the album, and in October, Shakur was beaten by Oakland police after he was stopped for jaywalking.
Even as controversy loomed, it was undeniable that the 20-year old Shakur's star was on the rise. A fiery, charismatic emcee forged in Public Enemy-style commentary, he'd joined Oakland-based rap collective Digital Underground just after the group had hit the big time with their hit single "The Humpty Dance" and platinum-selling debut album Sex Packets. D.U. leader Shock G had taken special focus on launching Pac as a solo artist; with 2Pac presenting himself as a much more militant offshoot of the established Digital Underground sound and aesthetic. And now he was starring in a major movie. The role was one he'd almost fallen into.
"[Digital Underground's] Money B had an audition for the movie," Pac explained to journalist Davey D in 1992. "Sleuth [D.U.'s road manager] suggested I also come along. I went in cold turkey, read—God was with me." And Shakur explained his perspective on Juice. "The movie is about four kids and their coming-of-age. It's not a Hip-Hop movie. It's a real good movie that happens to have Hip-Hop in it. If it was made in the 60s, it would've depicted whatever was 'down' in the 60s. My character is Roland Bishop; a psychotic, insecure, very violent, very short-tempered individual."
Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson, Juice tells the story of four Harlem friends: Q, Bishop, Raheem and Steel. They are teens that mainstream society says "live on the margins;" but the movie makes it clear early on that, despite the danger and pressures of the world in which they live, these are just rambunctious kids. They play hookey and love rap music. They crack on each other and eat crappy food. These are, essentially, just teen boys being teen boys, but these young men are teetering on the cusp. Their environment is what pushes them down dark paths: as they deal with rival crews, police harassment, and the ever-present need to have their names ring out in the streets.
Dickerson had made a name for himself as a cinematographer on projects like 1985s Krush Groove, and most notably, had worked extensively with Spike Lee on acclaimed films such as School Daze and Do the Right Thing. Juice was Dickerson's first opportunity to tell his own story.
"After I got out of NYU Film School," Dickerson told Snoop Dogg during a 2018 interview on Snoop's YouTube show, GNN. "My friend Gerard [Brown] and I, we decided to write a script to try and sell ourselves as a writer/director team. So we did that.”
Arriving in early 1992, just months after New Jack City breathed new life into the "urban" cinematic experience and the critically-acclaimed Boyz N the Hood gave voice to the trials of coming of age as a young Black male in America; Juice was lumped in with a growing wave of what would soon be colloquially known as "hood movies." These were movies that detailed the lives of urban Black youth, navigating worlds fraught with crime, violence and drugs; the platinum-selling soundtracks typically featured popular Hip-Hop and R&B acts, and the movies themselves now often starred famous rappers, like Ice Cube in Boyz... and Ice-T in ...City.
On the surface, Juice looks like another noteworthy entry in the early 90s "hood movie" wave; but Dickerson's vision was darker than what, for example, John Singleton was trying to do in Boyz... And Dickerson wasn't influenced by what his younger West Coast contemporary was doing and portraying in South Central Los Angeles. “When we started our movie, we knew nothing about Boyz n the Hood," Dickerson explained in 2017. "We didn’t even know it existed, didn’t know it had been shot.”
The primary inspiration for Juice, initially, was Manchild In A Promised Land by Claude Brown. “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."
“It was kind of like my growing up in Newark 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.”
Dickerson knew he had to create something that spoke to a different generation than his own; he had to address what was happening in places like Harlem in the 1990s. “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 said.
“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."
Bishop's descent into bloodlust in Juice is an unsettling portrayal. Shakur's performance manages to effectively capture the pain that this kid Roland Bishop clearly walks around with (there are hints of a psychologically-scarred, ex-convict father, but it's never stated explicitly) while the rap star's performance also masterfully channels the sinister malevolence of Bishop as he descends into complete darkness. Even as a novice actor, Tupac's charisma and natural ability leap off of the screen; he stands out in the role, even amongst other talented newcomers like 18-year old Omar Epps and 27-year old Khalil Kain, both New York natives.
My character is Roland Bishop; a psychotic, insecure, very violent, very short-tempered individual."
- Tupac Shakur, (1992)
“Tupac was one of those larger-than-life characters in real life,” said Epps in 2018. “He just had a magnetic presence. And he was an amazing actor. He had chops."
“What I enjoyed about him was he was super smart. Way more book-read than what people knew. You could feel his artistry. He just had this energy on him that was just bubbling. It was like, ‘Man, this guy is gonna go somewhere.'”
As Raheem Porter, Khalil Kain played the group of friends' unofficial leader. In the film, Raheem is presented as an irresponsible teen dad who is also responsible enough to want to keep his friends from falling to the streets. Nonetheless, his controlling nature often puts him at odds with Shakur's Bishop. Kain explained in 2017 that Tupac was instrumental in him landing the role.
“If not for Pac, I probably wouldn’t get that role," Kain told The Breakfast Club during a 2017 interview. "He was so...fire in the room, you look around and you say 'Alright, if Im’a get the job, I’m gonna have to be better than this guy right here, cuz he killing it.'”
“Pac was beautiful. Man, he was a beautiful person—like, wild as hell.”
The film itself begins with truancy and practical jokes, as the four buddies (who call themselves "The Wrecking Crew") engage in hijinks like petty shoplifting and hiding out at Steel's apartment watching old movies. Things swiftly and tragically descend into the darkness of shootouts and murder, as these same friends decide the best way to earn respect on the streets is by taking it. Dickerson had the idea for almost a decade.
“It had been brewing around for a long time, ’cause we wrote the script in ’81 and ’82, but nobody wanted to make it,” Dickerson told GGN during a 2018 interview. “Nobody wanted to touch it. Everybody said, ‘Forget about it; you’re never gonna get this made.’ So it sat on the shelf.”
Juice features noteworthy early career appearances from future names like Samuel L. Jackson and Donald Faison, as well as high-profile appearances from rap luminaries like Queen Latifah and Fab 5 Freddy. Hip-Hop is so much of the movie's spirit, and the young actors at the center did a lot to push the dialogue and tone.
“We basically ad-libbed the whole movie, literally” Epps revealed to Yahoo in 2018. “Because the original screenplay that they wrote, those guys were a little older, so some of the verbiage was, ‘Hey, jive turkey!'”
Epps plays Quincy Powell aka "Q," the more level-headed counter to Shakur's volatile Bishop. Q has aspirations to be a Hip-Hop deejay, a plot point that connects the movie most directly to Hip-Hop music and culture. While films like Boyz... and New Jack City were undeniably Hip-Hop-drenched and rap music was a sonic and cultural backdrop for their stories, Juice connected gritty street life and Hip-Hop ambitions most explicitly. That Q wants to be a DJ puts turntablism in the spotlight; and with the film coming at a time when Hip-Hop's mainstreaming was becoming evident, it re-emphasized that rappers weren't the only pillar of the culture.
“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,” Dickerson shared in 2017. “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.”
[Making Q a deejay] made him more of a kid who probably could have been playing tenor saxophone or trumpet or guitar."
- Ernest R. Dickerson, Director
As Eric "Steel" Thurman, Jermaine Hopkins rounded out the film's four leads. The most introverted and emotional of the quartet, Steel is terrified as he watches his friends' lives unravel. Hopkins had gained notice as "Smalls" in 1988's Lean On Me, before winding up with this major role in Juice at 18 years old.
"Lean on Me was my first film, I got the role by attending a casting call; I thought I was lucky," Hopkins explained in 2017. "Then, I landed a role in Juice but I still thought it was a fluke. After Juice, I realized that people really thought I could act and that’s when I decided I wanted to make acting my career."
The soundtrack pulses with early 90s urban sounds. Everyone from Too $hort to Brand New Heavies makes an appearance, with acts like Salt-N-Pepa and EPMD also featured. Big Daddy Kane's "Nuff Respect" is a lyrical tour-de-force; Naughty By Nature's "Uptown Anthem" became one of their most indelible hits; and the Bomb Squad-produced "Don't Be Afraid" by Aaron Hall became a new jack-era quiet storm staple. But it's the movie's theme song, the driving, anthemic "Know The Ledge" by Eric B. & Rakim, that sets the film's tone. The song is heard over the opening credits and, three decades later, remains the heartbeat of the movie. Rakim wrote and produced the song himself—even playing the drums live on the track.
As a first-time director, Dickerson is remarkably assured behind the camera. His work with Lee formed the foundation for his own approach; and the movie moves along briskly. For the story, the director mined conversations with his actual brother-in-law, who was in his teens. A controversial plot point then and now, even the movie's depiction of a relationship between the high school-aged Q and his much older, twentysomething girlfriend (played by En Vogue singer Cindy Herron) came from stories Dickerson had gathered from the young man and his peers.
“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 told The Root.
Like filmmaking titans such as Lee and Martin Scorsese, Dickerson took a homespun approach that adds to his project's authenticity.
“The lady that sold ‘Q’ the gun, ‘Sweets,’ that was my mom,” revealed the director in 2018. “My mom used to live around the corner from Malcolm X. She knew Malcolm back in his zoot-suit days, when he was ‘Malcolm Little.’ I found out that all these people that had been coming to my house over the years, friends of the family, a lot of ’em were numbers-runners [and] gangsters in some way. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Growing up, my mom knows so many O.G.’s, I know she can play one.’ So. She really practiced, [cocking] that gun right.”
In Dickerson's film, the enemy is within: whether that be within your own circle or within your own consciousness.
"Juice was my second feature film role, and to be working with such talented individuals so early in my career was a blessing," Hopkins said in 2017. "Tupac was just starting his acting career, Ernest Dickerson, who had previously been Spike Lee’s cameraman, was making his name. To name all of the talented people involved in Juice would take forever. The great thing about filming Juice was, with all the talent involved, it was still an even playing field; the best of both worlds."
While it sits comfortably alongside it's cinematic contemporaries, and it's undoubtedly a part of an era and a style that would come to define the early 90s "hood movie," Juice has more on it's mind than just "growing up in the hood" and trying to make it out. This film has always been a fascinating study in how environment mentally and emotionally affects young people. The trauma that Q, Bishop, Raheem and Steel endure shapes who they are as teens; it affects all of them in varying ways, Bishop's descent is just the most tragic and obvious. In movies like Boyz... and 1993's Menace II Society, the antagonists come from the outside, in the form of rivals or cops. Those elements are absolutely present in Juice, but in Dickerson's film, the enemy is within: whether that be within your own circle or within your own consciousness.
"You never know what's going on in somebody's mind," Shakur said in 1992, describing the character of Bishop. "There are a lot of things that add up. There's a lot of pressure on someone growing up. You have to watch it if it goes unchecked. This movie was an example of what can happen."
It that same interview, Shakur revealed more about Bishop's father, sharing aspects of the storyline which never made it into the final film.
"In the movie my character's father was a prison whore, and that was something that drove [Bishop] through the whole movie. It just wrecked his mind. You can see through everybody else's personality, Bishop just wanted to get respect. He wanted the respect that his father didn't get. Everything he did, he did just to get a rep. So from those problems never being dealt with led to him ending four people's lives."
It's not about thugs or gang members or drug dealers. It was about KIDS."
- Khalil Kain, (2018)
Epps has gone on to star in many high profile films (Higher Learning, In Too Deep, Love & Basketball) and television shows (ER, This Is Us); as have Hopkins (Def Jam's How To Be Player) and Kain (Love Jones), who has used his role as Raheem to push philanthropic efforts in his hometown of New York City.
"When I first got back to New York from Los Angeles, I did an event. It was the 20-year anniversary of Juice," Kain shared in 2016. "So we had a party and I arranged a free screening up in the neighborhood—up in Harlem where we shot the movie—at the Magic Johnson Theater. I wanted to find an organization to give some money to [and] there is this organization called Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E.; they counsel parents, mostly women, after they have lost a child to gun violence. I thought this was an interesting tie-in to the 20 year anniversary of the film—considering that was kind of the subject matter of the movie."
After the release of Juice, Shakur would famously go on to a multiplatinum career as a Hip-Hop artist, as well as a notable career in Hollywood. Up until his tragic 1996 murder, Tupac Shakur would act in five other films, John Singleton's Poetic Justice in 1993, the urban sports drama Above the Rim a year later; as well as Bullet, Gridlock'd, and Gang Related, three movies that would be released after his death. Dickerson would go on to direct films such as Bulletproof, Never Die Alone and the 2000 Snoop Dogg horror vehicle Bones (which also featured Kain); as well as do acclaimed work on television series like House Of Cards, Dexter and HBO's The Wire.
The legacy of Juice forever connects its principle contributors.
“We 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 said. “Church groups were taking kids to see Juice because they thought it talked about the forces that were affecting their lives.”
"I think the thing, from an urban standpoint, that sets Juice apart and why people hold onto it is because it's not about criminals," Kain told VladTV in 2018. "It's not about thugs or gang members or drug dealers. It was about kids. It was about a crew that grew up together on the same block and watched each other's back. These were just kids. And that's a fact to this day: in any hood in America, these kids are right on the edge. They are like one bad decision away from death, 20 years in prison—their life being essentially destroyed. By one bad choice."