Exclusive: Director Ernest Dickerson Talks ‘Juice’ 25 Years Later

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Exclusive: Director Ernest Dickerson Talks ‘Juice’ 25 Years Later
Posted by Wilson Morales

June 5, 2017

Out on Blu-ray today for the first time ever from Paramount Home Media Distribution is the 90s urban classic, JUICE, which marked the feature directorial debut of Spike Lee’s acclaimed cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and featured the first starring roles for Omar Epps and an electrifying Tupac Shakur.

25 years later, the gritty and influential film continues to be celebrated for its realistic portrayal of Harlem life, the early New York hip hop scene, and the fate of four friends in pursuit of the power and respect they call the Juice. The film also included Khalil Kain and Jermaine Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah and Cindy Herron.

Before switching lanes, Dickerson had worked as a Director of Photography on John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet, Krush Groove, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X.

Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Dickerson regarding his directorial debut, casting the leads and walking away from his life as a cinematographer.

Was it a challenge convincing folks you could transition from being a cinematographer to director?

Ernest Dickerson: Well, we wrote the script around 1982-1983, around 8-9 years before we were finally able to make the film. I think what moved people the first time was the script because when it finally went out. It was initially rejected when we took it out in the early 80s and sat on the shelf until ’91. People were more receptive to the story. Then again, my name wasn’t someone they were looking to make the movie. Doing it independently, that’s how I was able to direct it. A lot of the films that I had been on as the Director of Photography, a lot of the directors I had worked for were also actors in some of the movies that we did. So, whenever the director becomes the actor, it forces the director of photography to be the director.

Can you talk about putting the cast together?

Ernest Dickerson: When we starting casting, I knew that there was nobody that we knew about, no young African American actors, and they just weren’t there at that time. We’re talking 1991. The only folks around were on television and that was a different time. We knew we would be going after unknowns and that was going to give the film more credibility. The first thing I told casting director Jaki Brown-Karman was that we wanted folks from the High School of Performing Arts and local theater groups. We wanted to find those four guys who could be the perfect characters that audience could believe that they had been together for so long. It was a long and exhausting process. Casting is usually is. You want to find the exact people and it took us a while.

This young actor came in and did a good audition and his name was Tupac Shukar. I had never heard of him. At that time, he was still a roadie, a background singer and dancer for Digital Underground. He came in and really knew the character of Bishop. He knew the pain behind the character. Khalil (Kain) grew to be the natural leader of the group. He just had that gravitas, that natural leadership quality. I thought Omar (Epps) was a good actor as Q. I thought that he was someone that everyone could relate to. With Jermaine (Hopkins) as Steel, it was interesting how the character was written, because the character was supposed to be a skinny guy. But when Jermaine came in, he just put his own stamp on it and made the character his own. That’s how he got the role. It was an exhausting process but it worked out. Ninety percent of directing is casting. That’s why I put so much time into it because it would make the job so much easier.

25 years later, is there anything you would go back and change?

Ernest Dickerson: Yeah, I see a lot of things I would do differently. It’s 25 years later and I’m a different person now. But I couldn’t do better than that guy. The music in that film is the music from that time. The film is a time capsule. I don’t know if the film were made today if it would have the same impact. So many things in the film that we talked about have been done in other films since then.

This year will also be the 25th anniversary of “Malcolm X,” which also marked the last time you worked as a Director of Photography. Was it hard to walk away from that line of work?

Ernest Dickerson: I did Malcolm X after Juice and I was so emotionally attached to the Malcolm X project, it was actually the fulfillment of a dream that Spike and I had. To translate his autobiography into film, and I wasn’t sure I could ever be that emotionally attached to a project again as a cinematographer.

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