In addition to being one of the most popular and influential artists in the history of urban music, Tupac Shakur was one of the better rappers to make the transition from hip-hop to Hollywood. The downside: he only appeared in a handful of movies before his untimely passing. Whether he was selling dope (Above the Rim, Bullet), trying to kick the habit (Gridlock’d), getting his romance on (Poetic Justice), or playing a corrupt cop (Gang Related), ‘Pac was able to deliver his parts with a gritty sense of realism and magnetic charisma. Sure, he was typecast in the roles you’d expect from a rapper whose songs tackled gritty subjects like crime, drugs, poverty, and street life. But he did possess a natural talent and that much was evident from his powerful performance in Juice.
The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a number of urban youth crime movies released that were rooted in hip hop culture and depicted the harsh realities of the ghetto. And not since the heyday of Blaxploitation films in the ’70s was there a such a surge in cinema with such a distinct African American cultural identity. Many great films were released during this period, but Juice is the cream of the crop — from its amazing soundtrack, the lovable characters, the gut punch of their downward spiral — it’s a movie that leaves an impression.
Director and co-writer, Ernest R. Dickerson, began his career working as Spike Lee’s cinematographer on his first six movies. And with his own introductory directorial feature, he followed in Lee’s footsteps by delivering a socially conscious and gripping portrayal of inner city African American life. Inspired by the the gangster movies of the ’30s and ’40s, ’50s film noir, some German Expressionism, Claude Brown’s coming-of-age tale “Manchild in the Promise Land”, and the crime and poverty-ridden social climate at the time, Juice is a gritty, stylish, entertaining and – ultimately — devastating examination of urban youths in a world that offers little in the way of prospects.
Juice tells the story of four teenagers — Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Q (Omar Epps), Raheem (Khalil Kain), and Steel (Jermaine ‘Huggy’ Hopkins) — as they come of age in the mean streets of Harlem, New York. When we’re first introduced to the quartet their main concerns in life are hip hop music, hooking up with girls, DJing and avoiding the local Puerto Rican bullies who have developed a serious disliking to Bishop. Unfortunately, minor mischief soon takes a sinister turn when Bishop gets hold of a gun and the boys rob a local store to prove their machoness and gain street credibility. But when Bishop kills the store clerk in cold blood, it sets off a chain of disturbing events that will end their lives as they know it.
After the robbery, we see a change in Bishop. For the first half of the film, he’s mostly good-natured, but there is an element of menace to him, as seen through his altercations with neighborhood goons. However, that all changes when he gets a taste for power after committing murder. He no longer cares about his buddies or himself and he has no problem popping caps in those who cross him. The transformation is both chilling and tragic; while Shakur is able to sell Bishop’s madness menacing conviction, you can still sympathize with the character because he’s a product of a hopeless environment. He doesn’t have any reason to better himself because he’s been conditioned by the streets.
Hood films of the ‘90s often dealt with the relationship between masculinity and the surrounding environment as young male characters found themselves lured into a life of crime and violence to gain money, respect, or social stature in their respective ghettos. Other times, they’re pulled into that lifestyle due to motivating factors like revenge or protection. But the one thing that was inevitable in these films was that characters would be experience the brutal reality of their environment first-hand eventually. And no matter the outcome of the proceedings, innocence, friendships and — in the worse cases — lives would be lost along the way.
In Juice, we witness a harrowing coming-of-age story as the boys lose their innocence through unfortunate events of their own creation, but their initial motivation is because of the cultural norms of their neighborhood. In a bid to prove their masculinity they are forced to become men too early. While the boys were no angels before (they were sexually experienced for a start and got up to some petty mischief), they were still innocent, relatively carefree and even had some future ambitions, as exemplified through Q’s desire to win a local DJ competition.
Coming-of-age themes and lost youth are prevalent in hood movies of this era. This is because the genuine ones serve to raise awareness and inspire legitimate change to deter youths from crime and gun culture. The most famous example is John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, which is arguably the gold standard for movies of this ilk. Along with Marion Van Peebles’ New Jack City, Boys n the Hood ushered in a boom period of gritty films by black filmmakers depicting inner city troubles. Yet, Boys n the Hood does contain a message of hope: Tre (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his girlfriend manage to escape the hood and move on to better lives. Juice, on the other hand, is not so positive.
Like Singleton’s flick, Juice is a condemnation of the way of the gun. Once the boys make the decision to rob the store they are forced to suffer the repercussions and there’s nothing glamorous or pleasant about it. Both films — along with many others in their genre — are cautionary tales. Juice just so happens to be one of scarier ones because the nightmare doesn’t let up after the robbery.
Here we are a quarter of a century later and you could argue that nothing has changed within our society, and perhaps that’s why the movie stood the test of time. Socio-political commentary aside, however, Juice is a gem which boasts an outstanding performance from a young Tupac Shakur. His legacy in hip hop was solidified the day his first album dropped, but his acting shouldn’t be overlooked either. He was pretty dope when it came to both.
Juice was just re-released on Blu-ray to commemorate the 25th anniversary with an alternate ending that’s equally as tragic and powerful as the original. It’s worth checking out.