FILM / Squeezed dry: Spike Lee's cameraman calls the shots

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The Independent Culture
ERNEST DICKERSON has been cinematographer on all six of Spike Lee's films, from She's Gotta Have It to the forthcoming Malcolm X. To put it another way, he has been standing close by while the canniest operator in contemporary black cinema has learned his trade, not only its technicalities but the complexities of its politics.

Lee has, at various times in his career, slighted or offended women, Jews and gay people, and has adapted his practice to deflect the criticism he has received from his community. So convincing is the lip-service Lee now pays to feminism that the longest scene in Jungle Fever was one where a group of women sat around discussing the manifold inadequacies of black men.

All of this, though, has passed Dickerson by, and his first feature, Juice (15), is dismayingly crude and uncompelling. It's an old script, for one thing, written by the director Gerard Brown nearly a decade ago. It tells the story of four high-school kids who never quite get to school. Their parents may nag them not to forget their school books, but somehow it's their boom-boxes they're carrying by the time they reach the front door. They spend their days on the streets, and the parents who are so keen to get them off to school never seem to tumble to their truancy. Parents in Juice are there to drag you out of bed in the morning, and to weep at your funeral. It counts as the upper limit of character-drawing in the parental realm to show one kid's father wearing a postman's uniform, another one's dad slumped in front of the television.

But then, character-drawing isn't Juice's strong point. The hero of the film is Q, short for Quincy (Omar Epps), but it isn't till half-way through the film that we are shown anything to differentiate him from his cronies, Raheem, Steel and Bishop. When they shop-lift records, it is Q who has the job of sweet-talking the woman who runs the shop, while the others quietly ransack the shelves. There's something very ugly about the way the woman in this shop is presented, perhaps to distract attention from the fact that these kids, by robbing local businesses, are sabotaging their own community.

When we first see her, she's standing on a ladder and the camera pans up the back of her legs. When she turns round, she's good-looking but has a metal tooth. Q, chatting her up, learns that she's very proud of this adornment and wants to have more. He can hardly hide his laughter. The peccadillo of shoplifting is more than justified, in the film's eyes, by this woman's failure to live up to the promise of her body.

In the next scene, in a bar, Q tries to chat up a woman with no dental anomalies. This time his desire to charm is sincere, and when he gets the brush-off we're supposed to feel for him. It turns out that he has a girlfriend anyway, Yolanda (Cindy Herron), who is lovely, sweet and is even making something of herself (she's a nurse), though it's hard to say what exactly she sees in him. That's not how the film works. It's not that she likes him because he's nice. Her liking him is used to establish his niceness in our eyes. She's a nubile testimonial.

At one point he turns up at her apartment. She won't let him in. He waits. She opens the door again, saying, 'Are you still here?' Next thing we know, she is serving him an elegant dinner. So was he expected after all, and the whole thing a lovers' game (badly directed), or is it just that women's actions habitually make no sense?

Nothing in Juice makes much sense. This is a film about teenage life on the edge of gangs, where the only drug use we see or hear of is a post- coital joint smoked by Q. The boys' life is turned upside down when they get access to a gun, and who supplies it? A middle-aged white woman called Sweets, who keeps an armoury in the fridge of the club she runs, that's who. Since nobody has much reason for doing anything that they do, the audience can't be expected to distinguish between different types of irrational behaviour. So, yes, the police seem to persecute the kids for no reason, but hey, what's the difference? No political points can come through when everything is so arbitrarily thrown together.

It takes real derangement to make an impression. When the gun arrives, Q's friend Bishop (Tupac Shakur) immediately goes mad. From a rather fierce teenager whose most worrying characteristic was identifying with the James Cagney character in Public Enemy ('that motherfucker took control of his destiny'), he becomes the incarnation of nihilistic bloodlust. The film doesn't inquire why. Perhaps physical contact with guns drives people mad, or perhaps Bishop is simply (to borrow the name of one of the contributors to the relentless hip-hop soundtrack) Naughty by Nature.

Tupac Shakur gives the film's strongest performance, if only because his character is 'supposed' to be disconnected from his surroundings. Dickerson begins to find his feet as a director from about the time Bishop goes crazy. There's one shot that's particularly eloquent of Q's dazed state of mind, when he returns to a disco for the second round of a scratching contest. He triumphed in the first round, less than an hour before, but since then there has been a robbery and murder in which he is implicated. Q seems to be fixed relative to the camera, and the world of the club revolves around him as if he were on some nightmare fairground ride.

And yes, as the film goes on, the viewer does start to care for Q and what happens to him. But if the new black cinema can't find a better way of making audiences care for its characters than by having madmen stalk them with guns, relying on our basic wish for people not to get shot, then it won't long hold on to the wide audience it has seized for itself.

For details see opposite.

(Photograph omitted)