When the boyz in the 'hood -- his 'hood -- started dying, Ernest R. Dickerson decided it was time to do something about it.
Dickerson, of course, was just coming into fame as Spike Lee's cinematographer. Having met Lee at NYU film school, Dickerson shot Lee's earliest films, including "She's Gotta Have It," the break-out film that put them both on the map.
"But I'd always wanted to bounce back and forth between strictly shooting and directing," the grave, 38-year-old filmmaker recalls today.
The astonishing thing is that this didn't happen six months ago, or even a year ago. It happened eight years ago.
"If anything," says Dickerson, " 'Juice' has become more timely. I was starting to see incidents of it happening in my neighborhood and other neighborhood. Things were happening to kids I knew. I was disturbed, and I did want to do a film for kids, but I wanted to do an adult film for kids about all the forces they have to contend with."
"Juice" is about four Harlem teen-agers who are fundamentally decent but nevertheless drift into a poorly planned crime that results in a murder. Then, under the pressure of the police investigation, they end up turning on each other with tragic consequences.
As he and co-writer Gerard Brown worked on the script, they often stopped to ruminate on the tragic distance between their own childhoods and the childhoods ending around them.
"It was totally different from when I grew up," says Dickerson. "We never had to worry about getting shot. When I got in a fight, it was about fists. Today, kids get into an altercation and somebody pulls a gun. It's so dangerous growing up."
One of the terrible phenomenon he and Brown decided to deal with was peer pressure.
"We wanted to talk about peer pressure, which has always been a big thing. Sometimes it's not economics -- I see a lot of kids from well-to-do families who get into these problems.
In Dickerson's film, "None of the kids had to worry about money. It was more about what Bishop (Tupac Shakur) saw -- Bishop drew Raheem (Khalil Kain) into it, Raheem drew Steel, and Q (Omar Epps) was just drawn in. It was peer pressure. He just didn't know how to say no to it."
As Dickerson's career in cinematography prospered (besides Lee, he's also worked with John Sayles, Robert Townsend, Wayne Wang and Oliver Stone), he never really forgot the story. Finally, "I found three producers who were willing to make the movie the way I wanted to make it." David Heyman, Neal H. Moritz and Peter Frankfurt secured financing, and finally the filming began.
Did Dickerson, who had been the man looking through the lens so many times, have any trouble with his new role?
"It wasn't difficult," he says. "I was used to being on the set, I feel at home on the set. The key to directing is knowing what you want and I had enough time to have worked that out. Since I co-wrote these characters, I knew what I wanted."