Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mission Not Quite Impossible: One Teenager's Unrelenting Quest to See 'Juice'

In 1992, I was rediscovering my NY roots.  Having lived in Lithonia, GA for six years at that point, I wasn’t really a New Yorker anymore.  Though I still enjoyed much of the rap music that came from there, my growing fascination with West Coast gangsta rap had nearly converted me by that point.  I wasn’t really feeling the then emerging generation of NY rappers.  Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School just didn’t move me, at least not at first.  Their videos sucked, and their production left something to be desired in my eyes.  However, by 1992 I was slowly coming back to the fray.  Some kids from Queens had started going to my High School.  I liked their swagger, and in turn befriended them.  Another influence in that same regard was my cousin, a native of the Parkchester section of the Bronx.  He had just signed a deal with Wyld Pitch records, and the B-Side of his first single 
celebrated the home town in grand fashion.  As if some sort of omen,   a film appeared on the scene that seemed to cater to my feelings at the time.

The commercials for Juice made two things instantly clear.  The film dealt with Hip-Hop, and it featured a rapper in the lead role.  I knew relatively little about 2Pac at the time.  Yo! MTV Raps Today had the video for “Trapped” on heavy rotation.  I wasn’t fond of the song itself, but I liked the concept and the video.  Pac had a certain charisma about him.  The way he accessorized showed that he understood myth making and iconography better than his peers.  The fingers on both of his hands were adorned with gaudy yet princely rings at a time when truck jewelry was considered passé.  I dug stuff like that.  Dude seemed cool, and the movie seemed like it was for me.  It was an amalgam of all the things I was into at the time: Black gangsterism, Black militancy, Hip-Hop, and NY swagger.  Well, there wasn’t much in the way of militancy, but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.  Come rain or shine, I’d be there on opening night.

As if to whet my palette further, the soundtrack was officially released weeks before the film itself opened.  The video for Eric B & Rakim’s theme song “Juice: Know the Ledge” was doing the rounds on MTV and BET.  It featured a slightly different Rakim than the one I had known up until that point.  He seemed a bit more thuggish and gritty, the lyrics a touch more profane and violent.  He boasted of “knockin’ niggas off” and “knockin’ niggas out.”  The garish black and white video felt authentic.  The God seemed to have updated his style to suit the times.  He was already the first rapper that I had ever deemed as my favorite, so I was all for Rakim 2.0.  

I found the soundtrack at a local mom and pop record store.  I snapped it up immediately.  At home, I popped into my stereo system and leapt into it head first.  I ended up fast forwarding through most of the New Jack Swing stuff (introverts often take a while to warm up to R&B).  I already liked “Know the Ledge,” but four other songs caught my attention.  Chief among them was Cypress Hill’s mind numbingly repetitive “Shoot em’ Up.”  In the three months prior to January of 1992, I had become a Cypress Hill nut, and thus sought out anything they had to do with.  By the weekend of the film’s release, I knew all my favorite songs from the soundtrack back to front.  

I was as ready as anyone could possibly be for that film.  As it turns out, some were feeling a different sort of anticipation for it.  Actually, it was something more akin to fear and anxiety.  The openings of both New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood, which were released mere months apart from each other in 1991, had been marred by violence.  Riots and even murders occurred at certain theaters showing the films on opening weekend.  The media gleefully fed such stories to an already fearful and racist populace.  Just like that, this new and emerging brand of cinema aimed squarely at Black teens became irreversibly stigmatized.    

Juice seemed doomed to continue that trend.  The poster, which featured 2Pac’s character Bishop cradling a .38 revolver, became a cause of concern for some.  That image had been plastered everywhere in the weeks preceding the film’s release.  Many feared that it would attract the wrong kind of crowd to cinemas, thus inspiring violence in the streets.  L.A.P.D Detective James St. John was quoted as saying that the ads for Juice were “Like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  That such a characterization of the films target demographic was incredibly racist and pessimistic didn’t seem to occur to anyone.  None the less, the detractors got their wish.  The film’s distributor, Paramount, agreed to have the gun airbrushed from later posters for the film.  

Actor Khalil Kain, who played the character Raheem Porter in the film, pointed out a striking similarity between the poster for Juice and that of a certain summer Blockbuster that had been released the year before.   Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which had been released nearly 8 months before Juice, featured an equally menacing image.  It showed the title character, played by Arnold Shwarzenegger, brandishing a sawed off Winchester 1887 rifle.  That image featured prominently in the films ad campaign, and didn’t stir up a whisper of protest.  The double standard was obvious to anyone with a brain, but low budget films starring and aimed at Black teens rarely get the same level of consideration as mega-budget blockbusters with white stars. 

On the night Friday, January 17th, 1992, a friend and I ventured down to the multiplex on Panola road in Lithonia, Georgia.  The place was packed.  The lobby was bursting at the seams with kids.  It was also under the watchful of a few uniform cops scattered throughout.  I had been to any number of films at that theater in the previous 3 years.  Not once had I ever seen cops stationed in that lobby.  I suddenly realized that it was simply a sign of the times.  The authorities in Lithonia were well aware of the stigma attached to films like Juice, and prepared accordingly.

My companion and I had met with a couple more friends as we were waited in line.    Just then, one of the cops stood next to the ticket booth and loudly announced “If your under 17 and don’t have ID, you’re not getting in to see Juice!  I repeat, no one under 17 is getting into Juice without a parent or guardian!”  I could have sworn that he was looking me dead in the face as I said it, seeing as how I was the tallest kid in that long line.  Again, I had been to that theater numerous times to see R Rated movies without a parent or guardian in tow.  Not once did they ask me for ID or make any obvious effort to enforce the ratings code.  Suddenly the sentiments expressed on the Public Enemy, BDP, and Ice Cube albums I had adored seemed real in a way that they hadn’t before.  Here was the man, trying to stop Black kids from seeing a Black movie.  “Fucking pig” I thought to myself as we left to the theater.

 My friends and I walked out to the parking lot, feeling defeated.  This was a roadblock we had not anticipated.  Two scalpers that had originally approached us in the lobby started berating us for not partaking of their services when we had the chance.  They laughed at us, continuously yelling “Y’all stupid.” Stupid we may have been, but it seems that God was keeping extra special watch over children and fools on that night.  Up from the back parking lot comes Zack, a dark-skinned brother from our subdivision who was a few years out of high school.  We approached him and explained our little dilemma.  He looked at us and smiled before saying in his Lithonia drawl “C’mon.  I got y’all!”  As we walked inside the lobby, we saw those same idiot scalpers being thrown into the street like refuse by the cops.  Of course, they went into their show business, yelling bold protests at the officers.   

We sat down in the theater.  “Know the ledge” pulsated over the opening credit sequence, priming the audience for the hood style epic to follow.  What we got instead was a disjointed and meandering reality tale that took a jarringly tragic turn at the halfway point.  Whatever its flaws, the first viewing was amazing.   The audience was electric, laughing and gasping at all the right moments.  One of my friends laughed at the way I seemed to be able to anticipate each song from the soundtrack.  I was instantly taken with the character of Bishop.  Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tommy Devito in Goodfellas had given me a taste for such loose cannon types.  Bishop was legitimately cold hearted and scary, and that suited me just fine.

In the end, the experience was a memorable one, though most of my native Georgian peers disagreed.  They found the film to be pointless and meaningless.  I liked it, though my rediscovery of my NY roots prevented me from admitting that my Georgia peers indeed had a point about its quality.  Either way, Juice was something to get excited about at a time when my interests were still maturing.  I no longer view it as a good film, but it remains a very found memory from my adolescence.  Looking back, much of the way I viewed NYC at the time was based on that single film.  Funny how much a B-Movie can alter ones perception.  The Juice may not have been filling or nutritious in the long run, but man did it taste good going down.    


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