25 years ago, Ernest Dickerson who was then an upcoming cinematographer made his mark on Black cinema with “Juice.” With new talent including Omar Epps, Khalil Kahn and then newcomer Tupac Shakur, Dickerson crafted an iconic thriller about four young men from Harlem whose lives change dramatically as a result of one tragic decision.
Over two decades later and with everything from “The Wire,” to his forthcoming film “Double Play” under his belt, Dickerson took the time to chat with me about making “Juice” while looking back on his profound journey in the entertainment industry.
Aramide Tinubu: Hi Mr. Dickerson, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Ernest Dickerson: Sure.
AT: Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of “Juice,” it’s a wonderful thing to celebrate. How did you come up with the film’s narrative, and how did you and Gerard Brown come together to write the film’s screenplay.
ED: Gosh it was so long ago. I remember I wanted to do a film noir through the eyes of a 16 or 17-year-old. We were horrified by how guns were becoming so prevalent among our youth. We first wrote “Juice” in the early 80’s. It was almost eight years before we were finally able to make a movie.
AT: Oh Wow!
ED: In the middle of the ‘80s we started seeing the prevalence of guns coming up among kids, and how that seemed to be changing the whole landscape. We wanted to write a story about that. So, that’s really how it started. And, you know, I had always wanted to do something about kids. You would see that they were spending all night out, and I said, you know, whatever they were into, there is an idea for a movie there. So, that was another part of the germination. So, it was quite a few things.
AT: Wonderful. Why did you decide to use relatively unknown actors for the four main roles? Juice really introduced Tupac Shakur; he wasn’t Tupac as we know him, Khalil Kain, Omar Epps, and Jermaine Hopkins. You chose to grab people who actually weren’t well known at the time. Why did you make that decision?
ED: I thought it would be more real. I didn’t see any known actors … any known, young, African-American actors in that age range who would be realistic in those roles. So, you definitely, you want to go out to unknowns. I have been saying that from the very beginning.
AT: Excellent, that makes sense. I know that with Tupac he auditioned with one of his friends, and he read for the role of Q originally, but then you had him come back and read for Bishop. What did you see in Tupac during that audition that made you feel like he could become Bishop?
ED: I think the main thing that got me is, all of the other actors that came in to audition for Bishop, they automatically went ballistic, but there was nothing behind their going ballistic. So, it was that, and you’ve got vulnerability, you know? There is a deep pain in the character of Bishop that Tupac understood. I mean, he brought that in Bishop.
AT: Got it.
ED: That is the main thing. The fact that a lot of the actors would come in there dealing with the character in two dimensions, but Tupac came in and dealt with it in four dimensions. So, he would know how to play it.
AT: Wonderful. Music is also so important in the film especially, because Q is an aspiring DJ, and I know that Gary G-Wiz scored the film for you. So, how did you both approach that? How did you decide which songs to choose to highlight in the film, and what you wanted the soundtrack to sound like?
ED: You know, I didn’t want Q to be a rapper. Because then, you know, that’s too on the nose. It was just a lot of rapping going on. I had been particularly interested in what was going on in scratching and mixing. Using turntables as musical instruments. I thought that was pretty innovative. So, I wanted to explore that in society. I’ve always been a fan of untraditional film scores. Some of them are really good. I was looking for that for this film.
AT: Originally you made “Juice” independently, but it went to Paramount, and the studio made you change certain elements. You had to change the poster because the studio didn’t feel comfortable with the original poster, and you censored the ending of it a little bit. It was supposed to end a bit differently. Were there any other concessions that you had to make?
ED: The main problem, I mean the film is pretty much mine except for the ending. This film did not use the scripted ending. That really killed the climax. A lot of people don’t like the fact that the bad guy got a chance to decide that he was going to do the right thing. I also had to put in some voice overs, because at 16 years old you can’t be sure what Q is going to decide. I thought that Omar’s performance carried that, but you know a lot of times the studio didn’t have that much faith, to be honest. So, there were a few things that were, a few lines of dialogue that they had me put in later. But, you know, if I get a chance to do a director’s cut, that stuff is coming out.
AT: If you made the film today, do you think you would have had to make those same concessions, or do you think that the studio may have been a little bit more liberal?
ED: I think now audiences are a little bit more, you know, I guess maybe this generation is more liberal and sophisticated. Not that they weren’t sophisticated back then. But I don’t know, you know?
AT: Got It. So, looking back 25 years later, what does “Juice” mean to you? You’ve accomplished so much between this film in ’92 and today, so what does it mean to you as a director?
ED: It was my first child. That was really special. I’m humbled that 25 years later, people still react to it. People still look at it.
AT: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Mr. Dickerson, I really appreciate you speaking with me today.
ED: Thank you.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Juice” Paramount Pictures Home will be releasing the film on Blu-ray DVD. You can grab your copy starting June 6th.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami