Menace II Society
Screenplay : Tyger Williams
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1993
Stars : Tyrin Turner (Caine), Larenz Tate (O-Dog), Jada Pinkett (Ronnie), Arnold Johnson (Grandpa), Vonte Sweet (Sharif), Charles S. Dutton (Mr. Butler), Bill Duke (Detective)
After viewing "Menace II Society," it was hard for me to believe that Allen and Albert Hughes, the two brothers who wrote and directed it, were only twenty-one years old at the time of its completion. That two filmmakers could, at such a relatively young age, produce a work so mature and so well done is a testament to the sheer prowess of natural filmmaking ability. They had no formal training, no film school degrees. Only years of experience making home videos with their siblings and neighbors instilled them with the knowledge of how to tell a story on the screen. A director twice their age with the experience of a dozen works under his belt could not have made "Menace II Society" a better film. It's that good.
One of the strengths of "Menace II Society" is its complexity, how it can be seen on several levels. At its simplest, it is a gangster film, falling in perfect step with one of Hollywood's favorite subjects. Since the cinema was invented, filmmakers have made films about gangsters of all kinds, sometimes condemning them such as in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," and sometimes romanticizing them, as Francis Ford Coppola did in "The Godfather Trilogy." On a deeper level, it is an intense study of moral complexity and guilt.
"Menace" hardly romanticizes the gangster lifestyle, but at the same time, it does not condemn it. It portrays the gangster in the world in which he lives, neither judging him nor trying to answer any questions about him. It simple shows the lifestyle and where it usually leads: either jail or dead. If that can be construed as judgment, then the Hughes Brothers are guilty. They're just telling it like it is.
The Hughes Brothers understand the world they are filming. They have a keen eye that catches everything about it, but they don't allow the film to sit on a purely surface level. Instead, they also employ stylistic devices such as interesting camera angles, retro music scores, slow motion, and old news footage to explain their reality in cinematic terms. They utilize some of the same camera techniques the great Sam Peckinpah used in "The Wild Bunch" (1969) to heighten the reality of the violence portrayed on the screen. Some might argue that heightening violence is pointless because realistic violence should make its own statement. But with the cinematic medium, there is an immediate distancing factor between the audience and the action, and that often needs to be compensated for by extending the bounds of reality within the screen. The Hughes Brothers do this to an alarming degree of success, making some scenes so powerful they are almost unwatchable.
The film's central character is a young black man named Caine, played naturally by Tyrin Turner. Caine is not a good person, but at the same time, he is not completely bad either. The audience can tell that deep inside there is someone who wants to be good, but just doesn't know how. Since he was born, he only knows how to curse, steal, lie, cheat, and kill. It was instilled in him at such at young age and hammered into him with each successive year of growing up in the Watts district of Los Angeles, that it has become an integral part of his being.
The Hughes Brothers don't go out of their way to blame white racism or anything else for Caine's position. They just show that when a person grows up under circumstances such as Caine's (one of his first memories is witnessing his drugged-out father murder a man over a poker game), he will probably turn out "bad." This is the inherent sadness of the film that gives it its power. Caine didn't choose to be this way.
Caine's best friend is O-Dog (Larenz Tate) who represents the worst the black ghettos have to offer. As Caine describes him in the narration, O-Dog is white America's worst nightmare: "Young, black, and doesn't give a fuck." In the opening sequence of the film, O-Dog and Caine enter a Korean grocery and O-Dog guns down the grocer out of pure spite. They steal the surveillance camera tape of the murder which becomes a hot commodity in the neighborhood.
The tape is a key to one of the central differences between Caine and O-Dog: while O-Dog happily shows the tape to his friends, freeze-framing and laughing at the exact moment of the murder, Caine is filled with a sense of guilt about the needless killing and also realizes the implications of what would happen if that tape ever got out. This is vital to understanding that Caine is not morally reprehensible to the core. His character has a multi-layered morality, and the Hughes Brothers refuse to label him "good" or "bad." That would be too easy and, as a result, the film would be simple-minded and unmemorable.
Then there is Ronnie (Jada Pinckett), Caine's love interest. But more importantly than that, she is his only chance for survival and redemption. Ronnie is the ex-girlfriend of one of Caine's old friends who is serving a lifetime in jail, leaving Ronnie with a four-year-old boy. Ronnie is still intertwined with the goings-on in the 'hood, but she can stand back and see the negativity and nihilism of most of the action taken by the people around her. She is one of the few people who recognizes the inner self of Caine who wants to be good, and she reached out to him as best she can. She wants a life better than what she has, and she's willing to leave everything behind for the betterment of her son. She wants Caine to come along with her, to leave his past behind in the 'hood, and his reluctance to leave despite knowing that he should adds to his complexity and moral dilemma.
"Menace II Society" is filled with strong, visceral images that don't leave you when it's over. The dialogue is vulgar, but necessarily so in that it is a realistic portrayal of its characters and environment. The film never backs down from accurately representing the slice of inner city life it chose. The world of "Menace II Society" is ugly, and the Hughes Brothers want the audience to realize that. There is nothing glorious about being a gangster, and the life that Caine leads can only go nowhere. The ending of the film is so powerful and intense, it will leave you breathless. At one time the ending is nihilistic and almost disheartening, but at the same time, it's bold and honest, and brings home a declaration about the state of the world that no other ending could have.
One of the best ways to judge a film's merit is how you feel about it the next day. Some films seem so great as you're walking out of the theater, but when you wake up the next morning, you've all but forgotten about them. Such is not the case with "Menace II Society." This film will sit in your gut for a long time, tugging at you heart, making you question the world in which we live and where we're all going. It's not just a film about the black condition in the 'hood. It's about human choices and fighting against the injustices of the world and accepting help when it's offered. In the end, it's about life and death, and all the choices we make inbetween.
©1996 James Kendrick