Retrospective: The Abyss Will Also Gaze Unto Thee: Juice (1992)

"You're right. I am crazy. And you know what else? I don't give a fuck."


Juice is one of those films that perfectly encapsulates an era, that freezes it in a snapshot and allows you to absorb everything--good and bad. On the surface it's about the relationship of four friends Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Q (Omar Epps), Raheem (Khalil Kain), and Steel (Jermain 'Huggy' Hopkins). They are teenagers, skipping school and running the streets of Harlem together, hustlin' in any way they can to make a little money. Though they are not related by blood, they are still brothers united in their need to stick together to survive the tough urban sprawl. Raheem is the de facto leader, Bishop is the hot head, Q is the dreamer with aspirations of becoming a famous DJ, and Steel is the happy-go-lucky clown. Unfortunately, their alliance cannot last as crime and oppression threatens to tear their clan apart.

Bishop's father did some time in jail and when he got out he was so traumatized by his experience that he became practically comatose. This results in Bishop becoming disenfranchised with the system and with life in general. When you have only know pain and violence it becomes harder to remove yourself from the vicious cycle. During a robbery (that was intended to be just a cash grab) he shoots a shopkeeper in cold blood and that is the beginning of his journey into the abyss. Tupac puts in an absolutely chilling and incredible performance as Bishop, as he can oscillate between fake kindness and sociopathic killer at any time. He's intense and hungry for respect, but at the same time he hates what he has become. It's a tragedy and frightening to think that maybe Bishop was destined for that route.

One of the more interesting aspects of Juice is that all the characters are morally ambiguous which can be unsettling for some viewers. While Bishop is plain evil, his "brothers" all occupy various shades of grey on the morality scale. Q is a thief, Raheem has a young son that he isn't taking care of, and Steel has dropped out of school and has no aspirations. Some of this is due to the environment and the need to display hyper masculinity to survive on the streets, but they do have a choice to try to better themselves. This is the most realistic theme of the film though--not everyone possesses the self-awareness to evaluate their actions.

The look of the film is excellent and it captures the flamboyant colors of the '90s. Harlem feels alive and it's displayed in all it's gritty glory. Director Ernest Dickerson, himself an accomplished cinematographer, uses all sorts of classic techniques to give Juice a classier feel. It almost operates as a film noir of sorts, utilizing light and shadow to great effect. The soundtrack is one of the best from the '90s era, with Gary G-Wiz (from Bomb Squad) providing a soundscape that would be at home in a horror film. The rest of the film is rounded out with songs from some of the best rap acts of the time: Naughty By Nature, Big Daddy Kane, Cypress Hill, Salt-n-Pepa, and Too Short.

Juice isn't meant to be a morality play as nobody really achieves redemption. However, what it does do is shine the light on the daily experiences of people you might overlook or ignore. Sometimes it's enough to just have their stories told, even if the story doesn't have a happy ending.

--Michelle Kisner