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kottke.org posts about tragedy

Revisiting “Juice,” 25 years later

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

It’s been a (very!) eventful two weeks, but I still can’t stop thinking about Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s terrific appreciation of Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film Juice. That’s as good a reason as any to share it here.

Juice might be Tupac Shakur’s signature performance as an actor: he’s charming and frustrating, thoughtful and thoughtless — accelerating through emotions and personalities like an athlete changing speed mid-play — beautiful and wrathful and doomed, like Achilles or James Dean. Or, like Tupac.

Willis-Abdurraqib zeroes in a key part of the story, and of the best art from the era in which the film was made — “what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there.”

Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it…

A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.

I should add, especially for readers who’ve never seen it, that Juice is beautiful. Dickerson was/is one of the best cinematographers alive before he became a director, and it shows. And the soundtrack is amazing. You could say it was a forgotten movie, but it’s just so unforgettable.

We Work Remotely

Omar Little, postmodern Achilles

posted by Tim Carmody   May 06, 2011

David Simon put together The Wire partly on his and Ed Burns’s experiences in Baltimore, and partly on the model of Greek tragedy:

Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality…

The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason… Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different.

I’ve always thought of The Wire’s Omar Little in terms of the Greek hero Achilles, man-killer, the matchless runner, conflicted hero of Homer’s The Iliad — one of the few figures in Greek literature who seems immortal, knows he’s doomed, and doesn’t care.

My theory’s based in part on these two scenes and their related plot points. In the first, Omar identifies the body of his lover/partner Brandon, killed and mutilated by the Barksdale gang:

It’s Hector’s killing of Achilles’s partner (and lover, probably) Patroclus and stripping of Achilles’s own armor from Patroclus’s body, which the Trojans try to seize and desecrate, that drags the sulking Achilles back to battle:

My spirit rebels — I’ve lost the will to live,
to take my stand in the world of men — unless,
before all else, Hector’s battered down by my spear
and gasps away his life, the blood-price for Patroclus,
Menoetius’ gallant son he’s killed and stripped!

… Enough.
Let bygones be bygones. Done is done.
Despite my anguish I will beat it down,
the fury mounting inside me, down by force.
But now I’ll go and meet that murderer head-on,
that Hector who destroyed the dearest life I know.
For my own death, I’ll meet it freely — whenever Zeus
and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on!

The Trojans try to kill Patroclus to send a message to the Achaeans to stop fighting. But it ends up dooming the city, because it brings Achilles back into the fight willing to do anything to destroy them and their heroes.

In this famous scene, Omar shows how much he knows about mythology:

As Omar would say: “You come at the King, you best not miss.” And as fans of the show know, Omar both has his revenge and meets a similarly mythic end. In Greek tragedy as in The Wire, the universe is indifferent to our heroism.

(blockquote transcribed from Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s The Iliad)