Friday, June 20, 2014

Classics Revisited: Menace II Society

Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Albert & Allen Hughes.
Written by: Tyger Williams and Allen & Albert Hughes.
Starring: Tyrin Turner (Caine), Larenz Tate (O-Dog), Jada Pinkett (Ronnie), MC Eiht (A-Wax), Vonte Sweet (Sharif), Ryan Williams (Stacy), Samuel L. Jackson (Tat Lawson), Glenn Plummer (Pernell), Charles S. Dutton (Mr. Butler), Jullian Roy Doster (Anthony), Marilyn Coleman (Grandmama),  Arnold Johnson (Grandpapa),  Saafir (Harold Lawson), Bill Duke (Detective), Erin Leshawn Wiley (Ilena), Samuel Monroe Jr. (Ilena's Cousin).

In the early 1990s that were quite a few “hood” movies – about violent young black men in gangs. Most of these films have mainly been forgotten – but two of them certainly still stand out – and still pack a punch. In 1991, John Singleton made Boyz in the Hood – which told the story of a good kid (Cuba Gooding Jr.) growing up in the wrong neighborhood in L.A. – and eventually gets out. Boyz in the Hood has been held up – even by members of Congress – as an R Rated movie that teenagers should see. It is a positive film. The Cuba Gooding Jr. character comes close, but never crosses the line and does anything that would make him irredeemable. He’s one of the “lucky” ones in that he has two parents, who while they are divorced, still care about him and help set him on the right path. Even the “violent” one – played by Ice Cube – seems more resigned to his fate than anything else by the end of the movie. He’s too far gone, and knows it – and the movie lets us know he didn’t last long after the events in the film.

Two years later, The Hughes Brothers made Menace II Society – and it’s an altogether trickier, more daring film. Its main character, Caine (Tyrin Turner) repeatedly crosses the line that the Gooding character never does – the film’s first scene has him and his best friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) go into a convenience store where the clerk says the wrong thing to O-Dog – and ends up being murdered. O-Dog than kills the man’s wife as well, and takes the security tape showing what happened – and will use it to show off to their friends. You can forgive Caine for this transgression – he didn’t do anything, didn’t know it was going to happen – but he also does nothing to stop it. It won’t be that long though before we do see Caine participate in a murder – a retribution killing against the men who killed his cousin. Throughout the movie we’ll see him do other “bad” things – including carjacking another young black man for his stereo and rims, avoiding a woman he slept with who tells him she’s pregnant with his child, and thoroughly beating her cousin who shows up to try and talk to him about it. When his grandfather asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies Caine thinks about it for a second before answering. “I don’t know” he says.

Yet what The Hughes Brothers – and writer Tyger Williams – are able to do in Menace II Society is still make you care about Caine, still feel sympathy for him and most importantly see things from his point of view. After that first scene in the convenience store, Menace II Society flashes back to show us scenes from Caine’s childhood. His mother was a junkie. His father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a violent drug dealer, who thinks nothing about shooting a man for a petty reason in front of his young son. Both are dead before Caine is a teenager. Another man, Pernell (Glenn Plummer) takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes – basically how to be a drug dealer. Caine is surrounded by people who only know one way of life. He, like everyone else in the movie, has a limited perspective on life – he doesn’t see anything outside of his world. What chance did Caine really have?

That’s really the key to Menace II Society. Caine is not an “evil” character – although we see him do some horrible things. He’s not O-Dog, who Caine describes in his voice over as society’s worst nightmare - “Young, black and doesn’t give a fuck”. Caine does care about his grandparents. He develops a relationship with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett) – the girlfriend of Pernell, now in prison doing life with no parole – and for their young son Anthony who he wants to show the ropes to, just like Pernell did for him. But Caine, like many teenagers from all races makes stupid mistakes – and where he comes from, making mistakes carries more serious consequences. By the time he realizes that his way of life has no future – it’s already too late for him. During a prison visit, Pernell asks Caine to take care of his son and teach him that “the way we grew up was bullshit”. Pernell used to be Caine and now realizes the mistakes he made – but it’s too late for him.

The Hughes Brother admit to be inspired by Scorsese – particularly GoodFellas, and you can see that in every frame of Menace II Society. The structure of the two is similar – starting with a violent scene, than flashing back to scenes of the main characters childhood, before rushing into the present. The camera work is similar as well – The Hughes Brothers camera rarely rests, it’s always moving, always circling the films characters. There is a kinetic energy to the movie. The violence in both movies is presented the same way – often quick, brutal and bloody scenes. Both films take the audience into a sealed world that seems foreign to them, but seems natural to the characters. Had Scorsese been a young black man in the 1990s, Menace II Society would be the film he would make.

The performances in Menace II Society are effective – Turner has a rather flat monotone in much of the film – but it works for the character that is numb to his surroundings. He certainly has a limited range – and given his post Menace career, one can assume he never developed further. Much better is Larenz Tate, who looks so young and innocent, which is makes his psychopathic violent streak all the more chilling. The Hughes Brothers get some good work from three veterans – Jackson is chilling as Caine’s father, Bill Duke excellent in one scene as a cop interrogating Caine (“You know you fucked up now”) and Charles S. Dutton has a few nice scenes as a man not unlike the Laurence Fishburne character in Boyz in the Hood – the father of a friend, trying to look out for everyone, but knowing the reality they are facing.

Last year, I read a number of stories about a “renaissance” in black filmmaking – basically based on the fact that three black filmmakers made successful, acclaimed films in the same year (Lee Daniels for The Butler, Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave) – and more than once, someone would point out that this “renaissance” seems to happen again and again, before taking a step backwards. I couldn’t help but think of John Singleton and The Hughes Brothers when I read those stories. Singleton became the youngest filmmaker ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Boyz in the Hood – at only 21 – and was also the first black filmmaker to be nominated. The Hughes Brothers were the same age when they directed Menace II Society just two years later. Yet sadly, neither of them have been able to match the success of their first films since. Singleton made some interesting films after Boyz in the Hood – Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), the vastly underrated Rosewood (1998) and Baby Boy (2001) – but has mainly had to do action films – like Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Four Brothers and Abduction - in the past decade and a half. For their follow-up to Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers made the excellent Dead Presidents (1995) – a look at black Vietnam veterans who become criminals. Since then, there hasn’t been much – the documentary American Pimp (1999), the stylistic Jack the Ripper movie From Hell (2001) and the action movie The Book of Eli (2010)  - and Allen’s solo directing effort Broken City (2013). It’s a shame that two directing careers that started out so promising have not been able to quite follow through – but I cannot help but wonder why that is. Do Singleton and The Hughes Brothers have a string of projects they have not been able to get off the ground? And if so, why not?

What remains though is Menace II Society and it is a masterpiece. This is a tough film, a violent film but an honest one. The final scene in the movie is heartbreaking. So many lives wasted for nothing.

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