In 1991, Blaxploitation films resurfaced in big way with the emergence of the ‘Hood flick. Los Angeles gang culture had a certain brand of colorful outlaw chic that made it a perfect fit for the genre. New York had no such equivalent, as its various factions of urban militias weren’t as clearly defined. Still, the Big Apple had a certain allure that lent itself well to “urban” dramas. January of 1992 proved the opportune time for such a film. The same audiences that enjoyed having their collective heartstrings tugged by John Singleton’s epic after-school-special were still hungry for yet more tales from the Hood. Filmmaker Ernest Dickerson sought to appease that appetite, and inadvertently unleashed an unstoppable force that would come to change Hip-Hop drastically.
Set in early 90’s Harlem, Juice centers on four teenage friends who form a tight knit posse known as the “Wrecking Crew.” Though not a street gang proper, they engage in what amounts to petty mischief, shoplifting from local record stores, skipping school and engaging bloodless stand-offs with Puerto-Rican thug named Radames and his crew Rapido Muerte. Eager to attain a higher level of notoriety, group leader Raheem comes up with a plan: rob the local bodega at gunpoint. It sounds simple enough, but crew member Bishop isn’t happy with a meager take from a cash register. He wants more, and the whole endeavor unleashes his inner psychopath. As the crew falls to ruin, it all comes down to a face-off between members Q and Bishop.
Ernest Dickerson had served as director of photography on Spike Lee’s early films. Juice was his first turn in the director’s seat. The coming of age tale was a bit different from Spike’s docudramas. Instead of simply having rap music on the soundtrack, the film integrated Hip-Hop into its DNA. The musical score was provided by Hank Shocklee & the Bomb Squad. A subplot of the film focused on Q’s ambitions as a DJ. Bishop sported 40 Below Timbs as casually as Deebo sported house shoes. Everything about the film felt like cutting edge NYC street culture.
The Soundtrack was the very definition of where mainstream East Coast Hip-hop was at the time. The Motion Picture Academy may can sweat “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard out Here for A Pimp” all it likes, but “Juice (Know the Ledge)” remains the ultimate theme song for any Hip-Hop related film. Eric B & Rakim’s adrenalized morality tale tells a better story than the film itself. Big Daddy Kane, who by then had become a purple blouse- wearing parody of his former self, got a bit of his swagger back with “Nuff’ Respect.” Naughty by Nature’s “Uptown Anthem,” a better song than anything on their platinum selling debut, served as a rallying cry for the ill-fated wrecking crew. Cypress Hill contributed the maddeningly repetitive “Shoot Em’ up,” which played like a musical manifestation of Bishop’s psychosis.
The coup de grace came with the casting of Tupac Amuru Shakur as Roland Bishop. The role was originally meant for either Treach or Money B, depending on which mythical retelling you prefer. Though Shakur’s face featured prominently on the poster, he was anything but a star at that time. His turn as Bishop would change that in a big way. Bishop is introduced as simply a hothead, but he soon morphs into a heartless murderer. By the time he confronts Q at his high school locker, it’s clear to anyone watching that Pac owns the role. The intensity in his eyes during his now famous monologue suggests that Pac was indeed possessed by the spirit of this fictional character.
Juice wasn’t really a good film. It aimlessly meanders about until the violent turning point during the bodega robbery. Bishop’s insanity (coupled with the soundtrack) breathed violent life into an otherwise mundane film. In the four years following the film’s release, Tupac harnessed that charisma, crafting a rap persona unlike anything seen before or since. Juice can be seen as ground zero for Pac’s unique brand of performance art. For the length of a feature film, He was able to convince the world that he was truly insane in the brain. Like the great Alfred Hitchcock, Tupac enjoyed playing his audience like a piano. For all of its shortcomings as a film, Juice remains a testament to that quality. Soulja Boy should just play it safe and remake House Party instead.
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