Movie Cycles: Juice and the New Black Cinema, 1991-1992

In its first three weeks of release, Juice, now showing on 1100 screens across the country, has grossed more than $12 million dollars at the box office and is still running strong. Juice is the promising directorial debut of Ernest R. Dickerson, better known as Spike Lee’s cinematographer (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever).
Though Juice lacks the flashy style of New Jack City and the emotional weight of Boyz N the Hood, it is still a rewarding film about a well-dressed Harlem crew as they turn from pranksters, engaged in petty crime, into robber-murderers looking for the “juice” (respect). If the coming-of-age story is familiar, it is only because Juice follows the recent release of a large number of films on similar subjects.

Indeed, the single most important development in the film industry of the early l990s is the emergence of a new African-American cinema. The sheer numbers are impressive: About 15 features directed by black filmmakers have been released so far. In l991, moviegoers were able to see more films by black directors than in the entire last decade! But it’s not just quantity that is striking; the quality, energy, and diversity of these movies are remarkable too. Juice is the latest addition to a film cycle, arguably a movement, that may be as significant as the New American Cinema of the late l960s.

There have been other attempts to generate interest in an African-American cinema. What is new and exciting is the magnitude of this movement and the unique point of view of its artists. The new African-American cinema is headed by young filmmakers, many of them fresh out of film schools. John Singleton, who made Boyz N the Hood, is 23, and Matty Rich, the director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, is only l9.

The turning point was Spike Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta to Have It (l986), a small-budget feature, made right after his graduation from NYU. At present, Lee is the dean of the young African-American directors, a position based on his talent, productivity (five films in five years!), and celebrity status. But Lee’s knack for generating controversy over his films has increased the visibility of all African-American movies.

The new black directors provide an insider’s perspective on the African-American experience. They display vigorous story-telling techniques and a hip sense of dark humor, mixed with bleak realism. In the new black films, there is an alluring mix of violence and thrills and, though socially relevant, there is a certain cool about them. But perhaps most important is what the new directors seem to negate: a white perspective on distinctly black issues.

Steven Spielberg’s clean, glamorized version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (l985), was a blockbuster, but it set off alarms among black filmmakers about the fate of a uniquely black novel when it is translated to the screen by a white filmmaker. Similarly, the well-intentioned Mississippi Burning, directed by Alan Parker in l988, aroused controversy, because it recounted a government investigation into the disappearance of civil rights workers from a strictly white perspective, failing to acknowledge the role of blacks in the movement.

The new African-American films stand in sharp opposition to Shaft and the cycle of “blaxploitation” films in the l970s. Pandering to their viewers, these films provided innocuous entertainment and gratuitous violence, but lacked moral gravity. Juice and most of the new black movies are slick in their visual style, but they are not emotionally vacuous. They are socially conscious films in the best sense of the genre; the power of Juice’s anti-gun message is undeniable.

Made at a time when the country is polarized by race relations, the new films are highly relevant–they are angry at the white society for neglecting the black community. “Either they don’t know it, or they won’t show it,” says one adolescent in Boyz N the Hood about the media “coverage” of his turf, South-Central LA. Without self-pity, the new filmmakers turn the cold homicide statistics of the black community into emotionally probing portraits of lifestyles that are depicted with great sympathy.

For example, in the comic thriller A Rage in Harlem, director Bill Duke shows great affection and understanding for Harlem’s dynamic street life with its hustlers and con artists. Straight Out of Brooklyn is set in the housing project where Matty Rich had spent his childhood. In Jungle Fever, explosive racism and drug abuse serve as the contexts for a doomed interracial liaison in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, in the final account it is the buck that rules. Fortunately, the new cycle proves that black is not only beautiful, but also good business at the box office. Five of the 15 black films were commercially successful, a far better ratio than that of most mainstream movies. Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, and Jungle Fever, all studio movies, were big hits. With over 50 million dollars in grosses, Boyz N the Hood has become the most popular feature ever directed by a black filmmaker.

The performance of these films also disproves Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that black teenagers prefer to see action-adventure movies. And despite the violence that dominated the ad campaigns and surrounded the openings of some of them, these movies crossed over–they could not have been successful without the support of middle class adults, black and white. Aiming to reach both black and white audiences, Paramount has shrewdly chosen not to restrict its ad campaign for Juice to the black film market.

So long as they are profitable, Hollywood would be willing to spend more money on black films. Warners has allocated a budget of 26 million dollars to Spike Lee’s forthcoming Malcolm X, a serious art picture, making it Lee’s most ambitious production to date.

The increasing number of African-American films will encourage black artists in every capacity to pursue their careers. Dickerson had to wait eight years to make his debut in Juice–he wrote the script while waiting for a break as a cameraman. The favorable response to the new films (in movie theaters as well as on video) will hopefully change that–young and ambitious filmmakers may not have to wait so long in the future.

This essay was originally published in 1992.