Representation In The Film Juice
In this essay I will conduct an intersectional analysis and address the politics of representation in the film Juice. Juice is a 1992 crime drama that stars now deceased rapper Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps, and is directed by Ernest R. Dickerson. The film focuses on four Black teenagers growing up in Harlem, New York. It chronicles the day to day activities of the teens from the time they begin to indulge in pity crimes such as stealing music records, up to when they begin to commit more serious offences. As well, it focuses on the troubles that young Black men experience in every day life. These troubles stem from racial discrimination, harassment from police, lack of opportunities, and many other social inequalities. Simply put, Juice is a “hood” film that depicts what is considered being the ghetto life. I will begin my essay by explaining what representation is. In the film “Blackness” has an unfavourable representation. Images of violent Black males are predominant; young Black males are depicted as uneducated and lack the morals and values of decent people within society. I will then proceed by addressing how certain representations are made in Juice. As well, I will examine the importance of the politics of representation and critical criminology. Most importantly, I will demonstrate how the three variables of identity-race, gender and age, intersect and are constructed simultaneously to produce a negative representation of “Blackness”.
To begin with, representation literally shapes the world we live in. In Michael Pickering's (2001) work on stereotyping and the politics of representation, he gives a definition for representation. He says, “They consist of words and images that stand in for various social groups and categories. They comprise ways of describing and at the same time of regarding and thinking about these groups and categories”. So, the most important question in regards to representation, is which individuals gets to decide how others are represented? This is the premise of the politics of representation.
Moreover, the main characters in Juice are constructed to resemble the stereotypical images of criminality, associated with race, youth and males-images of deviance. This is accomplished with the intersection of these three variables of identity. As a result, “Blackness” is represented negatively. According to Celeste A. Fisher (2006), the author of Black on Black Urban Youth Films and the Multicultural Audience, ``The media image of ``Blackness`` is primarily depicted through the images of Black men”. As well, the public picture of Latinos and crime are similar to that of Blacks; Latinos too are viewed as stealthy and criminal (Russell, 1998). To add to this, the images tend to be depicted through younger individuals. Juice fails to challenge the images and the dominant representation of these social groups, rather it reinforces it. The few male Latinos that are in the film are depicted as criminals and gang members. Also, “Whiteness” in the film is marginalized, because it is only represented by police officers and a few extras. Moreover, the three main characters, Q, Bishop and Steel, are all Black youth. Each of them comes from neighbourhoods where drugs and gang activity are a way of life. The mentality shared by these characters is, that the only way to survive the current condition that they live is to adapt to the “laws” of the street. Early in the film they are shown skipping school, stealing, and participating in other deviant acts. Additionally, the construction of the images of three characters consists of many intersecting stereotypes of males and blacks. For example, the characters are aggressive (stereotypes of males), speak loudly, their language is filled with profanity and “Ebonics”, and they dress unlike others in society (stereotypes of Blacks).
Further, the construction of the characters as deviants is also accomplished through dialogue. For example, in the film there is a scene that shows the character Bishop and his friends watching the evening news, where they see that another friend has been killed in a shootout with the police, after trying to rob a pool house. Bishop then proceeds to commend the action of his friend instead of condemning it. After, he speaks to the group of friends about earning respect in the streets by committing crimes, he states: “You gotta snap some collars and let them motherfuckers know you here to take them out anytime you feel like it! You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, partner, get the wind behind your back and go out in a blaze if you got to! Otherwise you ain't shit! You might as well be dead your damn self!” So, if the image of the characters fails to produce a negative representation, statements like the one above definitely will.
In addition, the character Bishop, more than any other "racialized" person in film provides the most negative representation of Blacks, males and youth. He is depicted as a hopeless Black youth who experiences joy through violence and inflicting fear in others. One of the scenes that clearly show the depiction of Bishop is when he attempts to kill his childhood friend. The scene plays out as follows:
Bishop: You know, Big Chops, I really wanted all this to work. But you and Q, you ain't crew no more.
[Points gun at Steel]
Bishop: That's what it's all about. See how scared you are?
Steel: Don't you get tired of this shit? What the fuck you want from me?
This scene works and is believable because of the intersecting presumptions that are attached to Blacks, youth and males. This is they sometimes commit random acts of violence. Moreover, throughout Juice Bishop murders the leader of a Latino gang, an innocent store owner, one of his best friends, and he attempts to kill his other two friends. Celeste A. Fisher (2006) explains why the representation produced through Bishop, is extremely negative for Blacks and youth. She states, “The director of Juice did not suggest that the behaviour o the characters was part of a larger social problem (i.e. racism) Instead, he attributed Bishops behaviour to some intrapersonal problem that there is no explicit reason given for his violent and erratic behaviour”. Therefore, viewers of Juice will connect his behaviour to the negative images of Black youth that have been seared in their consciousness. They will conclude that his behaviour is simple because he is young black male.
Equally important, “hood” films made in the 90's like Juice, Boyz N The Hood, and Menace To Society, as well as more recent films like Belly and Baby Boy, feature young black male rap stars. By doing this and placing them in the role of “gangsters”, the films automatically succeed in creating a certain type of representation of young black males. Katheryn Russell (1998), the author of “The Color of Crime” states, “Rap music videos provide yet another representation of young Black males as social deviants. Black men are regularly filmed soliciting women, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, driving luxury automobiles, counting money, using cell phones, displaying pager devices, bragging about their gun collections, and wearing designer clothes-images widely associated with inner-city drug dealers”. As well, many of the urban rap artists that have been featured in “hood” films have a well documented criminal past. Their music is often criticized for graphic language and glorifying violence. However, their inclusion in “hood” films provides a “realism” of the representation of the deviant young black male.
Additionally, the construction of the main African American characters in Juice represents the intersection of race with both gender (in this case male) and age (Teenagers) and their connection to criminality. In the film the characters are constructed as potentially dangerous youth. The perception of Black people as being more likely to be involved in crimes depends in part on how they are socially constructed in society. (Jiwani, 2002). Accordingly, in reality the type of construction seen in Juice and in many other media text, form public perceptions of "racialized" youth. Thus, the picture that comes to mind when most of us think about crime is the picture of a young black man (Russell, 1998). Douglas Kellner (1995), discusses the media's role in society in his work, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture”, he views the media as: “An educational tool in that it instructs the masses on how to behave, what to and not to, think, feel, fear, and desire. Thus, society has been taught that youth, especially Blacks tend to be deviant and should be feared. This climate of social fear is created when representations melds dominant myths about race, gender and age into harden “facts” about youth violence (O'Brein, Suzie and Imre Szeman, 2004).
Furthermore, in Juice the representations produced by the main characters are also the result of the intersection of the stigmas attached to youth, race (Blacks), and gender (male). Accordingly, youth who have “failed” to integrate into society are demonized and thought of as deviants. The various forms of the media have constructed youth into a “social problem”. Moreover, when looking at gender and crime, along with the socially constructed concept of masculinity, it is easy to see violence has been gendered. I argue that the manifestation of violence has been tied to social or cultural distinctions attributed to men. With that said, it is a fact that men tend to be more violent than women; in any given year men make up the majority of adults charged with violent offences (Comack, Wood, and Chopyk, 2000). However, a problem arises with the assumption that lower class males commit more violent crimes and just crimes in general, than their higher class counterparts. Consequently, this leads to the criminalization of visible minorities and a stigma attached to members within that group. These stigmas are constantly being reinforced in various forms of media through representations. So, the intersection of these three variables of identity - race, youth, and gender, in a crime drama and “hood” film like Juice, creates a representation of the “perfect” criminal- a young black man.
As well, the negative perception of Blacks among other factors, leads to the unfair treatment of members within the black community, especially the youth and the males, receives in the justice/legal system. Referring back to Juice, the construction of the black youth fails to incorporate reasons why the characters may indulge in deviant behaviour-ex. Oppression. Similarly, for the most part the legal/justice system fails to take in account the inequalities within our society that can potentially make “decent” citizens commit crimes. The common public perception is that crimes are committed by “bad” people. This is why critical criminology because very important. Hence, critical criminologists argue that a criminal is not an immoral person; rather it is a person that is disadvantage socially, economically or physically. However, the construction of the criminals in Juice and in other media texts refuses to propose that such disadvantages leads to deviant behaviour. The critical perspective in criminology and that of crime causation is based on the Marxist frameworks and focus attention on the political, social and economic structures of capitalism. (Brooks, Schissel, 2008). Accordingly, the representations in Juice are based on the traditional public perception which is bad people from bad places, do bad things. So, one of the ways that these perceptions can be altered is through the various critical arguments, and theories from critical criminology.
Moreover, few will argue that youth and males of marginalized racial and class backgrounds receive prejudicial treatment in the criminal justice system. For example, police are more likely to stop and detain Black males than White males and Black men were most likely to be imprisoned upon conviction (1996:14 as cited in, Jiwani, 2002). As well, Black people often are not granted bail on the basis that “racial minority offenders ‘can't raise the money'” (Henrey et al.,1995, as cited in, Jiwani, 2002). Also, if bail is granted it is usually higher than the amount granted to white people (Westmoreland Traore, as cited in Henry et al., 1995, as cited in, Jiwani, 2002). Along with that, blacks often receive longer prison sentences. The prejudice stems from racism, but it is still relevant nowadays because of the way in which "racialized" groups are represented in the media-films, news stories (TV or print).
In addition, with the knowledge of the politics of representation and its ability to shape the world we live in; I pose the question, why does our criminal justice system continue to ignore the social basis and context of crime? I argue that the reason for this is the lack of social power marginalized groups has, as well as the fact that many of the decision makers in the justice system are members of the dominant class-white males. Accordingly, representation has a lot to do with power. In the literature Representation and the Construction of Social Reality, the authors state: “In both the organization of media and the ideological structure of language and other sign systems, representations tends to reproduce and to naturalize existing relations of social power”(O'Brien et al, 2004). They then add to this by saying, “The simultaneous classification and marginalization of relatively powerless members of society, works to keep them in their place, both symbolically and materially in the form of laws and social policies. (O'Brien et al, 2004). Therefore, one of the main reasons why the social basis and context of crime is deliberately being ignored is, so the dominant class can maintain their position within society.
Lastly, media images dictate who has power and who powerless (Baker, 2001). When discussing power and its relation to the politics of representation, Stuart Hall's (1997) work on the practice of signification is relevant. The practice of giving meaning is essentially done by members of the dominant class in society or people that have the power to do so. Hall (1997) states, “Giving and communicating meaning involves signifying practices. Practices carry meaning. Signifying practices are widely circulated by the media and other means (i.e. personal communication). However, the media often takes the place of personal communication, because of its widespread character and central role in the dissemination of ideas.” Referring back to Juice, the image of young Black males is given meaning by the film's writers, director, and producer. The problem with this is that, the meaning is based on the intersection of three variables of identity-race, gender and age, and various stereotypes, stigmas, and assumptions attached to them. According to Hall (1997), “Stereotypes fixes meaning given to certain groups”. So, the representations that reinforces these stereotypical meanings given to certain groups, becomes normalize when the different practices of representation is not revealed. In other words, all aspects of a fictional film like Juice, including stereotypical elements and exaggerated ideas, would instead be viewed as a depiction of what occurs in reality. However, meanings given to social groups are not fixed. Thus, they can be altered positively through favourable representations of social groups, whose image has been contaminated over time.