ONCE again, a major African-American film has arrived in a swirl of widely reported controversy. The movie is "Juice," directed by Ernest R. Dickerson, and the contention around it involves everything from violence in theaters to the picture's own advertising campaign.
It is becoming sadly predictable that movies with African-American characters and streetwise themes may be greeted with scuffles or shooting in some theaters where they open. This can occur, however, even when the film has a strong antiviolence message, as with "Boyz N the Hood" last year. And the trouble often erupts outside the theater, among participants who haven't seen the movie yet.
So it appears that on-screen content isn't to blame, but the mere fact of inner-city youngsters traveling outside their neighborhoods - there aren't many theaters within ghetto areas - and having inflammatory contacts with rivals they normally don't encounter. Hollywood can't be expected to take the rap for such events.
Paramount Pictures managed to spark an extra debate over "Juice," however, before it opened anywhere. The film's original poster reportedly showed the villain of the story holding a gun - until the studio decided the gun might seem too provocative and airbrushed it away.
Who could object to such prudence? Answer: some members of the African-American community, including actors in "Juice" itself, who publicly noted that promotion for the new Universal Pictures action film, "Kuffs," features Christian Slater brandishing a pistol larger than the grin on his face.
Hollywood's message seems to be that it's all right to show white folks with guns, but black people are "unstable" and need "protection" from such images.
The irony is that "Juice," like "Straight Out of Brooklyn" and some other recent films on African-American subjects, condemns inner-city violence and pleads for understanding of the conditions that cause it. The main characters are four young New Yorkers surrounded by the dangers and temptations of the street. Two of them just take life as it comes, but the others have strong ambitions. Quincy wants to become a rap-music DJ and steer clear of trouble. Bishop is determined to compel respect ("juice") from
his peers and finds powerful help in a pistol that tragically falls into his hands.
Mr. Dickerson sympathizes with his four protagonists, suggesting that even the worst of them has been victimized by the warped value system of an oppressed subculture. Unfortunately, he lets his message slip out of focus once the gun enters the story, allowing Bishop to become an outright psychopath. The screenplay and the performances are also uneven, failing to bring the story away from overwrought melodrama and back into the real world.
The film includes some vivid and touching character portrayals, however, and gives an informative picture of the contemporary rap-music scene. It's also superbly photographed by Larry Banks - presumably with frequent advice from Dickerson, who did the cinematography for all of Spike Lee's features (including "Malcolm X," now in production) before making "Juice" his directorial debut. Hank Shocklee created the pulsing music score.
"Juice" is no masterpiece, but it's further evidence that a vital African-American movie scene is continuing to grow despite the entrenched interests of a white-controlled film industry - and the regrettable pressures of adverse publicity.
Rated R for strong language and some violence.