After years of working with Spike Lee, Director Ernest R. Dickerson was ripe to deliver some of his own films with taut social commentary. Out of his entire career, “Juice” is easily one of his best, if not his absolute best. While it’s not quite as darkly satirical as Spike Lee’s films tend to be, “Juice” is very much ahead of its time. It’s very much about economic impact on minority teens, and the idea of toxic masculinity. “Juice” is mainly seen as a crime drama, it’s also about boys growing up in to men and trying to figure out exactly where they fit in.
Set in Harlem, New York, four friends — Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Q (Omar Epps), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and Raheem (Khalil Kain) — dabble in petty crime and wile their days away talking about the future. But after coming in possession of a revolver, they decide to go big by knocking off a local convenience store. Bishop has the gun and has big plans for himself. But Q has different aspirations. He wants to be a DJ and happens to have a large gig the night of the robbery. Unfortunately for him, Bishop isn’t willing to take no for answer and begins seeking out his perceived enemies.
Much of the elements of the male persona is emphasized within the four characters, especially in Bishop who views much of the concept of being a man fueled through (mostly violent) actions. We get a glimpse at his home life as his only male model is disabled and in a vegetative state, so he’s reduced to emulating criminals and thieves. Once the poison element of the gun is introduced to the narrative, “Juice” takes an incredibly dark turn. What begins as a pretty complex look at growing up in the hood, transforms in to a darker, violent parable about four boys struggling to figure out how they’ll grow in to men.
Even worse, they’re never quite sure what kind of men to emulate, which is pitch perfectly explored the moment the guys cross paths with a friend fresh out of jail in a bar. As they leave, he pulls out a gun and casually invites them to take part in the hold up. Though they decline and leave in tact, Bishop is very enthusiastic about joining him but is held back by Raheem and Q. Tupac plays Bishop as a young male who obviously feels like he has absolutely everything to prove. Even when it comes to his best friends, he spends most of his time speaking on the merits of going down in flames, and proving one’s manhood.
This immediately conflicts with his more secure friends, including Q who is seemingly going nowhere but up in his life and potentially leaving behind everyone in his neighborhood. Omar Epps is fantastic in the role as Q, a gifted DJ and mixer whose burgeoning hip hop career smashes in to his personal life. Along with his affair with an older woman, he feels pressured by his friends to commit the ultimate “Manly” act, which involves robbing a local convenience store. Once Bishop rationalizes murdering the owner in cold blood, it quickly snowballs in to more, progressively vicious violence as he begins picking people off left and right.
Once he sets his sights on Q, they turn in to bitter enemies that boil down to a pretty epic showdown on a roof. Dickerson’s direction is immaculate (the soundtrack is absolutely pure, epic 1990’s hip hop gold) and his commentary on toxic masculinity defined by a simple revolver is fascinating; especially as it gradually morphs from a plot element to an instant character. You could perhaps count Bishop as the villain of the film, but Dickerson pins the blame mostly on the gun, and the concept of toxic masculinity.
Both elements taint every relationship in the narrative, and leads in to a downer of a climax as Q is left wandering in to a crowd and being tagged as having “The Juice.” That could be interpreted as having more guts than most men, which might destroy his future, or even worse, puts a target on his back for other local neighborhood criminals anxious to make a point. Although made in 1992, “Juice” is still such a volatile and bold crime drama with a genuine heart and excellent performances.