Regular cinematographer on Spike Lee’s movies, Ernest Dickerson makes his directorial debut with Juice, a hard-hitting cautionary tale about today’s Harlem youth. He talks morals, messages and Malcolm X with Trevor Johnston.
‘1 see myself as a storyteller. The stories I tell don‘t necessarily have to be feelgood or upbeat, but they do have to try to be as truthful as possible. Some people can deal with it. Some people can’t.’ Cameraman and now writer-director Ernest Dickerson doesn’t shy away from telling it as he sees it, even if there are those who don’t like what he’s saying. In the current wave of movies from black American ﬁlmmakers, his ﬁrst feature Juice stands somewhere between John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood and Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City — a deeply-felt story of errant young folk that’s not afraid to play the thriller game to win over its target teen audience. ‘I call it a hip hop ﬁlm noir,’ he explains. ‘It’s what KRS-l terms “edutainment”. Present the morals within the story and let the kids pick ’em out for themselves. Just don’t hit them over the head with it.’
However you describe it, the film follows the fortunes of four buddies as they become inexorably drawn into the neighbourhood’s continuing cycle of despair. Nicknamed Q by all and sundry, Quincy’s (Omar Epps) hopes of getting out of the ghetto rest on his developing turntable skills as a hip hop mixmaster, but the path ahead is not quite so clear cut for his pals. With zero job prospects and with antagonism gradually mounting between them and a rival gang of Puerto Ricans, the highly disgruntled Bishop (Tupac Shakur) starts planning the robbery of a nearby grocery store. The logic of the streets is that carrying a gun and committing a crime are the only way to command respect, but even if it’s proof you’ve got the requisite bottle — or, as the local terminology would have it, the ‘juice’ - when ﬁrearms become part and parcel of everyday realities, death, destruction and paranoia are certain to follow.
Compared to the hyperkinetic stylings of mentor Spike Lee, the early sections where we get to know the central quartet make for pretty low key stuff but, as a study of cause and effect, the second half spiral of violence gains in weight and insight when we’ve understood the set of circumstances which have spawned it. Even if the gun-toting Bishop goes off the rails, Dickerson portrays him not as some psychotic crazy but as a young man desperate to make an impression on a world from
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which he is already disenfranchised. An authentic and unpatronising portrayal of ordinary lives and the struggle to eke out a sense ofdignity from the most barren ofsurroundings, there‘s a feeling throughout that it’s a movie the filmmaker simply had to get out ofhis system.
“When I was growing up you had to tight with your lists, you didn’t have to worry about the other guy going home, getting a gun and shooting you just because you stepped on his sneakers.’
Actually, this Juice is made from a lifetime’s concentrated experience. ‘My co-writer Gerard Brown and myself, we wrote the script nine years ago in response to what we saw happening in the lives of kids, especially in New York,’ recalls Dickerson, the youngest member ofthe prestigious American Society of Cinematographers. ‘We compared it to what we were like in the 605 and the big difference was guns. Guns were really starting to make their presence felt at that point, and in the intervening period it’s become even more prevalent. When I was growing up you had to fight with your fists, you didn’t have to worry about the other guy going home, getting a gun and shooting you just because you stepped on his sneakers.’
Although some wrong-headed critics have somehow contrived to read the film‘s unstinting depiction of the handgun culture as somehow encouraging violence —- one writer even called the director ‘a closet racist’ - Dickerson himself is well satisﬁed that he’s succeeded in his aim to ‘make a
Jules: ‘an authentic and unpatronlsing portrayal of ordinary lhm'
film for kids that treated them like adults, dealing on their level with things that affected their lives‘. Most gratifying for'him has been the way in which Juice has been taken up by community groups and schools as a focus for discussion, but he reckons the strength of the film is that it asks questions instead ofoffering pat solutions. ‘I don’t know what real difference a movie can actually make, but at least this one has started people talking. Everybody’s looking to the law enforcement agencies, everybody’s looking to the parents and the teachers, but we show that it‘s the responsibility of the kids themselves to change what’s going on.‘
Having taken almost a decade to get Juice on the screen with its integrity intact, Dickerson’s under
? no illusion that the Hollywood bottom line of 3 money, money, money has little truck with seekers
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after truth. But having brought the distinctive peppy day-glo look to Spike Lee’s films thus far, he’s proud to be involved in the director’s latest and most substantial project, the $33 million epic Malcolm X, which looks likely to be a key movie in the future progress ofthe so-called New Black Cinema. ‘The studio feels there’s a lot riding on it, but Spike’s made the movie he wanted to make. It’s from a legendary script by James Baldwin that’s been around for a long time, but no one had the guts to touch it. We’ve got Denzel Washington, who looks so like Malcolm X it’s not true. I saw the three-hour thirteen-minute cut that looks like the final version a couple of months back and l was moved. Malcolm’s been a symbol for so long and we‘ve made him a man. Ifit’s my last job as a cinematographer, there couldn’t be a better way to bow out.’
Juice opens at the Edinburgh Cameo on Friday 2 October and the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 4 October.
The List 25 September — 8 October 199213