Menace II Society. 1993. Directed by The Hughes Brothers. Screenplay by Tyger Williams.
Starring Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, June Kyoto Lu, Toshi Toda, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Johnson, Glenn Plummer, Reginald Ballard, Khandi Alexander, Jada Pinkett Smith, Saafir, MC Eiht, Pooh Man, Vonte Sweet, Cynthia Calhoun, Clifton Powell, Ryan Williams, Too $hort, Dwayne Barnes, & Bill Duke. Warner Bros.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
I’ve always found the situation for black people in America fascinating, in a tragic way because of how they’ve been treated from day one. What so many don’t realize, or care to consider, is the fact so much of what happened in the past is what informed and created the conditions of modern day ghettos, underprivileged neighbourhoods, high crime rates, and more. Similar to how the terrible treatment of Natives in Canada has also done the same thing for their culture and their people for generations.
So for a white guy from the far East Coast of Canada who does actually want to empathize, a film like Menace II Society is not simply a bit of crime-thriller entertainment from the hoods of South Central Los Angeles, it is a true learning experience. The way through to truth is often paved through great literature. I believe wholeheartedly the same is true for film. And that being the case, this Hughes Brothers movie brings us into the world of young gang bangers, the unhinged types. The sort of young men that see death on daily basis, so their own has become less and less threatening with each body dropped. With a solid screenplay from Tyger Williams, impressively gritty cinematography that takes under the surface of the gang world, the Hughes Brothers make what could easily be a gratuitously shocking, empty crime-thriller with a few shootouts. It is something much, much more than any of that.
Something I do know positively? The characters out of Menace II Society are the types that’d make someone like Hilary Clinton terrified. At least the Hilary in ’96, anyways.
To me one of the largest parts of the message Albert and Allen Hughes convey, alongside Tyger Williams and his honest screenplay, is the fact that areas like those in South Central – the same ones people like O-Dog (Tate) stalk with their predatory, gang banging mentality – they are endemic to anywhere the socioeconomic game is stacked against a certain group. Particularly, in places like Compton, Inglewood, the black community has been dealt a ton of shit hands over the course of their history in America. We know this no better than now in a day and age where, stunningly, racism still exists, thriving in larger than you’d like to believe pockets. Some places it swells ready to burst into extreme unrest, probably violence. Menace II Society captures a microcosm of what America is still going through, 23 years later as of this writing.
Furthermore, the Hughes Brothers and Williams make a point about the recurring, systemic cycle of violence that begins to perpetuate itself within these gangland territories. We start in the beginning with Caine (Turner) and follow him through a life plagued by crime. But what people – mainly, let’s face it, us white people – forget is that like any learned behaviour, the attitude of a criminal is fostered, nurtured. Children are not born bad. Like Caine, whose entire outlook on life is informed by the violence of his father Tat Lawson (Samuel L. Jackson); Caine even remarks through voice-over that “that was the first time I‘d ever seen my father kill anybody, but it wasn‘t the last. I got used to it, though.” So just how any other male child would learn how to be a ‘man’ from his father, Caine can only work off the presumptive, reactionary violence Tat showed him. And like his father, his career ends up being selling drugs in the streets.
In addition, the end of the film involving Caine and Ronnie’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) little boy directly speaks to the cycle of violence and murder of the inner city. Her boy and Caine as a boy are paralleled well in this screenplay. Before that we’re treated to an almost exact replica of the young Caine’s earlier scene on the steps with friends of his father, as Ronnie’s boy does the same with a grown Caine and his crew. So we can almost see right into the future – a sequel with the kid all grown up, Ronnie older now and world weary as her son bangs himself to death in the streets of the hood. That’s the saddest, most tragic part is how we effectively watch as the cycle revs itself up for another spin.
Finally, the Hughes’ and Williams make their biggest point, spoken clearly by Caine at the end, in the fact that usually when young men gang banging figure out the error of their ways, and that getting out would’ve been the best chance of living a full life, it is far too late. The end of Caine’s story is the end of far too many black men in cities and neighbourhoods like those in the film.
Caine: “All I had to do was catch some fool slippin‘. Jack his ass.”
Above all else the raw style of the Hughes Brothers directorial choices. Added to that is the excellently captured cinematography courtesy of Lisa Rinzler. Side note, I’d not realized after all these years of watching Menace that it was filmed by a woman; awesome discovery. Her style as cinematographer is great to look at, from the wide exterior shots of the various neighbourhoods in South Central L.A. to the closed in, shadowy interiors of the housing projects, the cars readying to kick a drive-by into gear, the neon lit businesses in the dark of night on the dangerous streets. Aside from the unapologetic style of the screenplay, Rinzler’s lens allows us a genuine peek inside the world of these gang bangers. The look of the film is realistic, as is the overall atmosphere. Even in more stylized scenes, there’s never any surreal portions, dream sequences, none of that. The screenplay keeps this story one hundred percent rooted in the grim reality of these gangsters, as Rinzler helps with her well photographed work to captivate us visually.
This is one of those 5-star cinematic experiences that not only brings you into a world possibly foreign to you, it further acts as a learning experience through fiction. Some of the best pieces of art, whether film or otherwise, examine issues that are near to our hearts. For many in America, in 1993 upon this film’s release and still to this day, the events and characters of the film are, unfortunately, not too far from what they know in their own lives. And though it offers no answers, no ready-made solutions, nothing concrete, Menace II Society absolutely does offer a tough dose of medicine for those not in the know. Like I said at the start, for a white guy from a relatively decent little town in Canada this movie provides a perspective I’ve never had the chance to see or know up close. I’m certainly glad the Hughes Brothers made this film because it was and still is a valuable film experience that relates directly to an understanding of certain parts of our world.