‘Juice’ at 30: Director Ernest Dickerson remembers Tupac Shakur’s first film role — and the trouble he found on set

Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain in ‘Juice’ (Everett Collection/Paramount) Ernest Dickerson famously transitioned being from the director of photography on Spike Lee’s seminal early work (including 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It , 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcolm X ) to making his directorial debut on a contemporary classic in its own right, the street drama Juice .

Dickerson’s slide into the director’s chair wasn’t as seamless as that timeline implies, though. He and his Juice co-writer, Gerard Brown, originally penned the film — about four Harlem teens whose lives spiral out of control after they hold up a bodega — in the early ’80s.

“The script was written nine years before we were actually able to make the movie,” Dickerson, 70, told us in a new interview promoting the film’s new 30th anniversary 4K Ultra HD release ( Juice was released in theaters 30 years, on Jan. 17, 1992). “It sat on the shelf for nine years. It was written in the early ’80s after I just got out of film school at NYU. And nobody wanted to touch it. They said, ‘Nobody wants to see this movie.’”

It wasn’t until Dickerson’s career as a cinematographer took off, and Brown, who was a writer-in-residence at the Public Theater in New York, scored a new agent that the Juice script was dusted off and eventually sold to Paramount. Ernest Dickerson directing a scene with Khalil Kain and Omar Epps on the set of ‘Juice.’ (Everett Collection/Paramount) Then the casting hunt started for the roles of Q, Raheem, Steel and Bishop, the four teens who — tired of harassment by the police and a local Puerto Rican gang — conspire to win respect on the streets, or “juice,” by robbing a corner store. But the hold-up goes horribly wrong when Bishop shoots and kills the owner.

Dickerson didn’t think there were any young Black actors on TV or in film at the time that could play the roles, so they cast a wide net across the Tristate area, looking in performing arts schools and church and neighborhood theater groups. “It was a long, painful process,” says Dickerson, whose casting director narrowed hundreds of candidates down to 10 or 12 actors they “mixed and matched.”

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