On a desolate corner at 129th Street and Convent Avenue a section of Manhattan that producer David Heyman affectionately refers to as ''Harlemwood'' the cast and crew of Juice huddle in the pouring rain. Half a dozen of New York's finest swagger about on the periphery, while women with big pink hair rollers hang out of their tenement windows to check out the action. Outside a shabby grocery, one of the stars of the film, Tupac Shakur, is lying on the sidewalk being kicked by members of the Rápido Muerte (Death Express) gang. A hand-held camera focuses on a pair of black boots ferociously kicking away at Shakur's ribs. After a few takes, he finally comes up for air: ''Look, I'm not getting paid enough for this shit! This padding don't do jack,'' he yells. ''I want more money! And why does the biggest muthaf---a have to be beating me?''
Kevin Ladson, Juice's prop master, runs over to assuage the bruised ribs of the star by taping more foam and padding under his sweatshirt. ''We had to reshoot this scene to make it look more real,'' he nervously explains. Shakur remains dubious until Ernest R. Dickerson, who is making his directorial debut with Juice, kneels over the actor with words of reassurance. ''You're doing great,'' he says. ''We've almost got it.''
For the unknown stars of this $5 million film, getting ''juice,'' a street term for respect and power, is as much a real-life obsession as it is for the characters they play. ''It's about time there's work for us,'' says Shakur's costar Khalil Kain, who just a few weeks ago was a bartender at a local nightclub.
The timing certainly is right: Hollywood is coming off a year in which a record number of black films were released, and movie companies are looking to repeat the success of Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City, which grossed $56 million and $47 million respectively. ''Studios finally realize the dollar potential of making black films,'' says Heyman, who is coproducing Juice with Neal Moritz. ''They cost so little to make and they don't have to bring in $150 million to be considered a hit.'' ''It's a good thing, too,'' says the 40-year-old Dickerson, ''because there's an untapped wealth of black stories, and now some of them will finally get told.''
It's day 18 of the crammed six-week shooting schedule, and the exhausted crew rushes to set up the next location as the rain lets up. The weather has put a dent in the day's schedule, but no one is complaining least of all Dickerson. When he cowrote the script for Juice with screenwriter Gerard Brown eight years ago, Hollywood wasn't interested. But that was before Dickerson's reputation as Spike Lee's cinematographer had begun opening doors for him. ''None of us would be here if it wasn't for Spike,'' says Heyman. ''He started it all with Do the Right Thing (1989).'' Last year, when the script was sent around again, the studios nibbled, and Dickerson made it clear that ''either I came with the script or it was no go,'' he says.
Juice is about four Harlem homeboys who, says coscreenwriter Brown, ''have watched one Chuck Norris movie too many.'' And while the message is antiviolence, the film has its share of guns and bloodshed. The movie's theme and marketing campaign have already sparked concern over a possible replay of the violence that marred the debuts of New Jack and Boyz. Paramount, the film's distributor, did revise Juice's poster airbrushing out a large gun though for creative reasons, not out of fear that it would incite violence, the studio says. Paramount also offered to pick up the cost of increased security in some theaters.
But Dickerson believes that the film's moderate bloodshed is an accurate reflection of life in the streets. His operative word is authenticity. ''This is about the perils of growing up black in the ghetto,'' says the director, who hails from Newark. ''If I can accurately show that without the Hollywood wrappings, then I've done what I set out to do.''