'Juice' And The Theater Of Black Nihilism

Notes on Tupac Shakur’s breakthrough film role, 25 years later

If we are to talk about the things that men cloak their love for each other in instead of showing it plainly, even in situations in which a plain and direct love would perhaps be most useful, we should talk about Juice. The film, released 25 years ago this week in 1992, is like most other Tupac stories, in that it is most potent when told starting at the end. It launched the acting career of Omar Epps and gave serious credibility to the acting ability of Tupac, then only one album into his rap career. In the film’s final sequence, Epps’s Quincy and Tupac’s Bishop are engaged in a long-brewing fight on a rooftop. I believe that it is a miscalculation to make Juice only about a gun, or about how a taste for violence can drive someone to madness if they have little hope. It is maybe about those things as well, but not as much as it is about how love for our brothers can return, even in the most dangerous moments, even if our brothers aren’t actually our brothers.

By the movie’s end, Bishop has already fallen in love with the power a gun held over him, ascending, in a single night, from robbery to murder — first that of a store owner, and then of his friend, Raheem. Bishop, aiming to frame Quincy for his string of crimes, chases him during a party, firing shots at him and hitting Quincy’s right arm in the process. By the time the fight spills onto the rooftop, Bishop is disarmed by Quincy and then hit in the face. He stumbles, slipping off the edge of the roof, where Quincy quickly grabs his hand, despite the wound on his arm. This is the story, then: the instinct to save a person you once loved but who has become so lost that you can no longer see who they once were. The hope that, by some large and saving gesture, you can bring the person you love back out of whatever has swallowed them. Bishop, hanging from the edge of the roof, pleads for Quincy to not let him fall into the waiting darkness below, despite having wished him dead mere seconds earlier. Quincy, his arm weakened by the bullet wound, eventually lets his hand slip. Bishop falls, screaming, to the ground below, undone by a wound of his own making.

Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it.

Bishop wanted, more than anything, to feel respected. At the start of the film, we see him and his crew tormented by a local gang and then harassed by police. We don’t just see Bishop as violent and unhinged — we see the accumulation of things that lead to his unhinging. Juice was set in Harlem and released in a year when New York City racked up a total of 2,397 homicides, a slight improvement from 1990’s 2,605 and 1991’s 2,571. While Juice was still in theaters, a skinny and tormented 15-year-old named Khalil Sumpter walked into Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, Brooklyn, and shot two classmates, Ian Moore and Tyrone Sinkler. Sumpter had been accused of giving information to the police about an earlier robbery and was convinced that Sinkler was going to kill him as retaliation. In the writing around the trial, the unraveling of “juice” — defined as proximity to power — was prominent. Sumpter was convicted of manslaughter in the end, not murder. He was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years and served five. During his closing remarks, Sumpter spoke of being pushed to the end of his rope, seeing no other option out.

The easy thing would be to mention the cycle of imitation in life and art, but I think there are violences so common that calling them imitation when spilled onto a big screen is somewhat reductive. What I find myself more interested in, with both Khalil Sumpter and with Bishop in Juice, is what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there. In this way, Bishop and all of his complexities were the perfect vehicle for Tupac’s entry into film.

In January 1992, when Juice was released, Tupac was just two months removed from the release of his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now. The album was praised for its direction and the way Tupac wrote directly and fearlessly about layered and nuanced topics. He worked through songs about single mothers, paranoia associated with race and class, and, most prominently, police brutality. The album was critically acclaimed and met with controversy. After Ronald Ray Howard murdered a Texas state trooper in April 1992, his defense attorney insisted that he had been inspired to do so by the lyrics on 2Pacalypse Now. This caused then-Vice-President Dan Quayle to insist that the album had “no place in our society” and call for it to be pulled from shelves. By the end of the year, Tupac was both infamous and iconic. He was an in-demand truth-teller with a gift for distilling far-reaching issues down to a fine point, and doing so with an endless charisma. At the dawn of 1993, with an acclaimed album and film under his belt, it looked like Tupac’s career could have gone in any direction.

The scene in Juice that stands out as Tupac’s greatest moment is this one: Quincy, attempting to avoid Bishop after becoming fearful of him, shuts his school locker. Unexpectedly, Bishop is waiting behind the locker door, glaring. It is a look that does more than language could, a jarring scene that might make someone jump. They have an argument, which peaks with Quincy calling Bishop crazy. Bishop replies with his most memorable line of dialogue in the film: “I am crazy. But you know what else? I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck about you. I don’t give a fuck about Steel. And I don’t give a fuck about Raheem, either. I don’t give a fuck about myself.” It is a statement anchored by startling honesty, and it presents plainly how fearful it is to be faced with someone who doesn’t have an interest in life — starting with their own.

In April 1993, Tupac was charged with assault for attempting to hit another rapper with a baseball bat during a concert. In October, he was charged with aggravated assault after a shooting involving two off-duty police officers. A month later, he was charged with first-degree sexual abuse, later to be convicted and sentenced to between one and four and a half years in prison. The night before his sentencing, in 1994, he was shot five times in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios in New York City, an incident that caused his already-brewing rivalry with his musical peers to spiral out of control. Sometime in the midst of all this turmoil, Tupac became extremely interested in his own death.

Through his close proximity to activism, I imagine that Tupac’s obsession with his own death came from his knowledge that anyone black enough and loud enough would eventually be silenced by any means. But his thoughts of death grew after his shooting in 1994, becoming massive and woven into the interior of his narratives. 1995’s Me Against the World stands as Tupac’s most introspective album, released during his prison stint. The second-to-last track is “Death Around the Corner,” a haunting and visceral song that doesn’t feel like a put-on as much as it feels like the urgent archiving of a man turning toward his own fate and preparing to lay down his arms. It hangs near the end of a long and exhausting album full of odes to mothers, gods, vices, and fears. It is the last Tupac album that doesn’t feel entirely like a performance — the last one obsessed with actual honesty instead of the marketing of honesty. It teaches that it is one thing to not fear death, and another to dress yourself for it and beckon it close.

There are roles you enter, and there are roles that enter you. Bishop, who was loved by his boys who could not save him, shared a trajectory with Tupac, who was pulled from the wreckage of 1995 by Death Row Records, where he was beloved but could not be saved. Juice is Tupac’s greatest performance, and the one that it is impossible to unsee when pulling back the lens and looking at his entire life.

A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.

A few weeks after Tupac died, the music video for “To Live and Die in L.A.” was released, from the scattered and uneven album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, recorded a month before Tupac was murdered in September 1996. The single was quickly forgotten, buried under the album’s more exciting, anthemic, and prophetic single, “Hail Mary.” In the video, though, Tupac looks happy. He sells fruit at a fruit stand, rides around Los Angeles in a convertible, dances with children, and sets off a food fight at Roscoe’s, running and laughing with a fistful of chicken. It was such a contrast to the Tupac that had been most frequently present in the public since his release from prison. I remember watching the music video from the floor of my basement and weeping. Seeing Tupac there, smiling in the sun, in a city he loved, I remember hoping that, at least for those moments, he wasn’t haunted by death.

Juice doesn’t end on Bishop’s fall, though it certainly could have. Instead, Quincy pulls his hood over his head and begins to wade, solemnly, through the crowd that had grown to watch Bishop’s final moments. A bystander stops him. “Yo,” he calls. “You got the juice now.” Quincy pauses for a moment, looks the man up and down, and shakes his head, a refusal. The screen freezes, and we hear Bishop at the beginning of the film. By that, I mean we hear Tupac’s loud and unmistakable laugh, from a time before Bishop was driven to madness by a desire to survive. In that way, the movie doesn’t end with Bishop dead, but with him more alive than he is for most of the film. Like all the best ways of looking at Tupac, it’s worth starting Juice at the end, and then zooming out.

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