‘JUICE’ director remembers Tupac-starring urban tragedy on 30th anniversary

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

How easy it was to sneak an R-rated movie past your parents in the ‘90s. A VHS tape encased in a white shell with only the video store logo and film title printed on the spine. Nothing compared to today’s streaming platforms with parental locks and viewing history capabilities.

One film I snuck into my family’s rent stack every so often – with its seemingly innocent-sounding title – was 1992’s Juice, starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur. Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and cinematographer for Do the Right Thing), the drama’s raw and acutely tragic tale spun a compelling portrait of lost youth that appealed to me. Although it wasn’t a world that I was accustomed to, the history of New York City and its ‘90s crime peak made for a fascinating exploration of humanity’s darkness and a community’s power. Young Black men died on the streets at unprecedented rates, leaving family and friends with many unanswered questions and cold cases.

Juice celebrates its 30th trip around the sun this year with a new 4K disc release, and its story centers on four Black teenage boys living in the crime-riddled Harlem neighborhood. Each young man faces power conflicts and is challenged at a crossroads where they must decide which path to go down. What unfolds sparks conversations that (sadly) still hold weight today.

Fresh Fiction rang up Juice director Ernest R. Dickerson to discuss some of the film’s tragic themes and impactful scenes in honor of the new anniversary release. Read that transcribed conversation and discover more details on the 4K release below.

Q, Raheem, Bishop, and Steel spend their days hanging out and looking for a way to get the power and respect they call Juice. Q hopes to earn respect by becoming a scratch ‘n’ mix DJ. Bishop has a deadlier plan—take it through an armed robbery with his crew. Ernest R. Dickerson, the acclaimed cinematographer whose collaborations with Spike Lee include DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOM X, made his directorial debut with this powerful drama steeped in ‘90s urban lifestyle. JUICE features the acting debut of Tupac Shakur and a hit soundtrack that includes Eric B. & Rakim, Naughty by Nature, Big Daddy Kane and Salt N’ Pepa. ©2021 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.

Q&A

The following is a transcript of a phone interview conducted on Jan. 12. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Enjoy the conversation, and be sure to pick up Juice on disc today at your nearest video store or online retailer!

Preston Barta: Congratulations on a 30-year-old journey with Juice. Over that time, what have been the most meaningful viewing experiences and conversations you’ve had about it? 

Ernest R. Dickerson: Well, for me, it was always those four young men that I was able to find. We were fortunate enough to put them together and discover Tupac. This past summer, my wife and I were actually able to spend some quality time with Tupac’s family down in Atlanta, and now they’ve become an extension of my family, which has really been really, really quite amazing. But I’m just surprised that interest in the film has lasted for so long. 

After you do a movie, you spend so much time with it that you want to get away from it. And I definitely got away from Juice until one day my daughter told me that she and her friends have had Juice parties where they would watch the movie and recite the dialogue with the film. And that’s something I could not believe. I said, “Get out of here! You got to be kidding me.” But yeah, that’s something they had been doing, and it really blew me away. And the reception that we got on the 25th anniversary Blu-ray and DVD was amazing. So, just to see that after all these years – the interest in the film is still there. It’s humbling.

So, your daughter found the movie on her own?

Yeah! Because when I made the film, she was too young to see it, but she started discovering it in school with her friends as she got older. So, yeah. And she was the one that told me that they have Juice parties and they knew a lot of people that were having Juice parties. 

Wow. That’s pretty special.

It was something that I did not anticipate. So, it blew me away.

A reason why I’ve always gravitated toward this film is the Shakespearean-like tragedy feel of it. The language, both verbally and visually, has that tone. I’m curious, outside of your brother-in-law and his friends’ experiences that informed the narrative, what pieces of art, literature or poetry maybe influenced the framework of this story and allowed you to populate it with the truth you collected? 

When Gerard [Brown] and I wrote the script, we considered Juice a film noir – a film noir with protagonists who were 16 and 17-year-old kids. And we were really kind of riffing off of what was going on in the neighborhood at that time. I did interviews with my brother-in-law and some of his friends, and we recorded those interviews when we first started to write the script. Their experiences are what fueled the creation of the personalities of the characters in there.

So, the idea of a 17-year-old kid having an affair with a 20-something year old divorcee, that was something that was real that was happening to one of my brother-in-laws at the time. It was really coming out of reality and also the love of cinema. Gerard and I grew up watching film noirs, and a lot of those are very Shakespearean because a lot of them deal with redemption and finding a way out of a major problem. 

The idea of [Epps’ Q character] growing up with his friends but finding his own power, that’s the problem that all these four young men have. They don’t feel they have any power in their environment. Q’s finding his own power through his music but, unfortunately, Bishop forces him to take a wrong turn. And that’s something that happens – that’s peer pressure. That’s one of the things that’s common in a lot of young people’s lives growing up is peer pressure. The peer pressure that forces you to make some of the decisions that you do. Some of them are right and some of them are wrong. And in this case, this is what was the drama of the film.

Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur in JUICE. ©2021 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.

Speaking of that pressure, but of a different sort, I want to touch on the incredible elevator sequence toward the film’s conclusion. In the scene, Epps’ Q is running from Tupac’s Bishop. Q sneaks into an elevator packed with people, but then Bishop gets in before the doors close. They’re staring at each other through a sea of people, and you don’t know who is going to make the first move. It’s so intense. And I simply just want to know where you were creatively at, in your head, in the construction of that scene?

Yeah! I was trying to put Q in an impossible situation. When I was writing the script, I imagined being trapped in an elevator with somebody that’s chasing you. You don’t expect them to pull out a gun, and that’s what I was going for. I was going for the unexpected. The fact that [Bishop is] not going to pull out a gun, but yeah, he does, and he starts shooting. So, to be perfectly honest with you, I was going for the shock value.

Well, it worked remarkably well.

Yeah, just going for the surprise. That’s where it came from.

I would say that and The Departed pretty much have the most intense and shocking elevator sequences.

Wow. To be compared with Scorsese is an honor because he’s a hero of mine.

Me, too.

The cast of JUICE. ©2021 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.

As we wrap up here, I want to ask you a hypothetical question: If you could be on set with the four guys now, knowing all that you know and all the experience that you’ve gathered over these past 30 years, what do you think you would talk to them about today?

I think the same things because I don’t think a lot has changed in these years. Juice was made in ’92, and I think that a lot of the problems that young people have growing up are the same. There’s still the prevalence of guns in this country and the easy accessibility to getting guns. If anything, it’s probably even greater than it was in ’92. So, I think the same forces would affect them today that affected them back then. 

I think our conversations would probably be the same with that in mind, knowing what is forcing Bishop to make this choice here – why he thinks that this is the way that they can gain power. Because that’s something that all young people are going through. Male, female, Black, white, Asian, Hispanic – they’re at a point in their lives where they’re trying to figure out where their power lies? What kind of an effect do they have on their environment and in their lives? And they’re trying to figure out what that is.

As a director, I’m appealing to the young actors because they’re playing it at the time when they themselves are going through the same thing. Even Omar Epps, at that point, was trying to decide if he was going to go for a musical career (because he had a singing group), or if he was going to go for an acting career. I think acting in Juice changed his mind, or definitely made him make the decision on that. But that’s the choice they’re trying to make: Where am I going to go in my life? What am I going to do? What’s going to be the rest of my life? How am I going to control the rest of my life? What’s my power going to be? Is it going to be music or is it going to be in acting? 

Tupac, at that time, had not done his first album, but he was at the point where he was writing material that he hoped would be in his first album. He was trying to realize his power through his voice, which ultimately became known to the world. 

So, really, it would be just appealing to them where they are at that point in their lives, because they were at that age.

That’s a beautiful answer. Thank you for sharing that. But before I let you go, I just wanted to say how cool it was that you used visual DJ spin transitions in this. I always loved that.

Yeah. We were fortunate enough to really have a great soundtrack. Hank and Keith Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad), they really knocked it out the park with the soundtrack. It was an honor to work with them. And when you look at the Blu-ray extras, there’s interviews with them. They talk about how they were able to get the sounds that they got. This was earlier on before computers became so prevalent in creating sounds and beats and everything. They were the pioneers.

The 30th Anniversary JUICE Steelbook is available for purchase today through Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and others. ©2021 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.

4K Disc Bonus Content

Paramount Home Entertainment’s 30th anniversary release of Juice is now available on 4K Ultra HD, 4K Ultra HD steelbook and Digital HD. Review all the disc features below!

Special Features:

  • A filmmakers’ audio commentary with Dickerson, where he drops a foundation of more information about the details of making the film, developing themes, writing the script and casting. 
  • “You’ve Got the Juice Now” – a 20-minute retrospective that explores the story’s roots, the atmosphere on set and offers more about the film’s ending (which produces the final line, “you’ve got the juice now.”
  • “The Wrecking Crew” – a 24-minute in-depth examination of the characters, cast and their performances. It’s assembled using both new interviews and archival behind-the-scenes clips.
  • “Sip the Juice: The Music” – as hinted by Dickerson in the interview, this feature centers on the film’s music. It’s about 13-minutes of new interviews and vintage footage.
  • “Stay in the Scene: The Interview” – a 23-minute sit down with the cast.
  • A photo gallery with stills from the shoot.
About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.