Menace II Society is a savage film. If Boyz n the Hood was the ying, Menace would be the yang, its dark reflection. Menace takes the groundwork laid by Boyz and pushes it to a dark nihilistic fatalism. Menace claims to depict what life on the streets of Watts, California was truly like in the early 1990’s. This is the Hughes Brothers directorial debut and their greatest triumph; full of the no nonsense-in your face grittiness that would define their later films (Dead Presidents, From Hell, The Book of Eli). Menace is not only one of the best “hood films”, equaling the high bar set by Boyz, it's one of the best films of the 1990’s. The narrative is extremely tight and focused, and there are few if any extraneous shots in this bleak drama. The story focuses on Kaydee “Caine” Lawson (Tyrin Turner) and his core group of friends during one summer in Watts, California as he ascends to adulthood.
After beginning en media res with a violent cold open, the movie gets going with a brief history of Watts, California. It begins with 1965 Race Riots before segueing into the late 1970s with a beautiful transition shot and narration from Caine, “When the riots stopped the drugs started.” This short scene establishes several important things about Watts; such as the problems of drugs, crime, revolving incarceration, honor fueled killings, parentless children, police brutality, and prevalent gun ownership which goes back several generations. His parents (Samuel L Jackson in a brilliant cameo, and Khandi Alexander) are negligent and Caine is often a witness to violence, drug use, and other crimes as a young child. Community hustlers like Pernell (who is about ten years Caine’s senior), help teach Caine how to be tough (i.e. a hustler), thus when his parents end up dead (exactly the way they lived), Caine goes to live with his grandparents. As Caine narrates, “Instead of keeping me out of trouble they [his parents] turned me on to it,” This short scene is genius in terms of foreshadowing the cycle of gritty, callous, and senseless violence while also setting the nihilistic and fatalistic tones that suffocate the rest of the film.
Menace paints the ghettos of South Central like a fatalistic dystopian society, in which there hardly are any fathers, and offspring are doomed to repeat the mistakes of generations past. Children are raised by the community (Pernell to Caine, and after Pernell is imprisoned, Caine to Pernell’s son Anthony) because men who aren’t dead by their twenties have escaped, are imprisoned, or are totally irredeemable shells like A-Wax. It’s an utterly dehumanizing society that is dominated by young men focusing on a tough facade and a me first code of honor. The prevalence of easily attainable guns means a simple insult can escalate to a casual murder with all the emotional detachment of changing a tire. Young men like Caine, who retain a moral compass still fall victim to this violent lifestyle because of the intense societal pressure around them. The only alternative is being a “bitch” or a drug user who is mercilessly ridiculed, outcast, or killed. Most women are treated (as shown in Boyz) badly through language and actions toward them (“bitch” “hoe”). They are almost treated as property or as things to be used up and thrown away. Thus anyone who insults, “punks” you, or “catches you slippin” must be dealt with, lest your manhood comes into question. To this end I’m ironically reminded of the Antebellum South’s backward code of honor, where the prevalence of guns and a rigid system honor led to many senseless deaths from dueling . Toward the end, one of Caine’s drunken homies makes a pass at Ronnie and Caine goes ballistic, beating him senseless. While later, when the cousin of a girl that Caine may have knocked up approaches him, Caine and O-Dog proceed to brutally assault him for daring to accuse Caine of such malfeasance. Both of these split second and utterly savage rebukes were pointless and come back to haunt Caine and O-Dog in the most horrific of ways. Tupac summed up the societal problems in his posthumous song “Changes”
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
Cause I always got to worry ‘bout the payback
Coming back after all these years
Ratatatatat! Well…, Thats the way it is.
Caine is our guide, our protagonist through the hoods of Watts, but he isn’t our hero or anti-hero, good nor evil (Ebert). He’s just a young kid, caught up in the intense cultural and societal pressures of his environment. Because of this he commits horrific crimes almost because it seems expected of him and often despite his strong misgivings at times. His immediate group of friends or “homies” are: Harold, his cousin who lives the hustler lifestyle to the fullest, O-Dog, a violent sociopath, and Sharif a former gangbanger turned Muslim who constantly urges his friends to see how foolish they are yet he is constantly dismissed. Also in his group are A-Wax an older voice and not one of reason but that of a disturbingly despicable instigator, Stacy, the most “normal” friend who is a football star and is planning to escape to Kansas on a scholarship, and Chauncey an unhinged fringe friend at best with connections to organized crime. If you are the reflection of the company you keep then Caine never had a chance.
Menace shows what hood life is really about for these misguided young men. Caine says, “I only learned half of what they taught me in high school, but I was only there half the time anyway,” and a little later regarding his Grandfather's common sense, “It just went in one ear and out the other.” The film shows just how easy and alluring the flashy lifestyle of a drug hustler can be in South Central Los Angeles. Caine, despite earning a high school diploma, is already seduced by the allure, despite witnessing and being privy to several acts of senseless violence from a very young age. Early in the film Caine is convinced by O-Dog to commit a drive by, ostensibly to avenge his cousin’s death in a carjacking gone wrong, but really it's about reclaiming their impugned honor. Later, Caine laments, “I thought it would make me feel good, but it didn’t. I just knew that I could kill somebody and if I had to, I could do it again.” His grandparents, Sharif, Mr. Butler (Sharif’s father, a distant Furious Styles figure), and his high school teachers all try to teach him some sense but can’t penetrate the thick facade of his environment. Caine and his friends can’t even imagine living any other way (Ebert). They go about their daily lives constantly entrenched in this terrible environment and the worst part is, to them it's just normal.
Whereas Caine is our guide through this violent world, Kevin “O-Dog” Anderson (Lorenz Tate) is our nihilistic catalyst. Tate does a phenomenal job in this role, and it's difficult to see anyone else playing O-Dog. The screen crackles with his violent unpredictability and despite his horrible nature his presence is missed when he’s not onscreen. He is described by Caine as being “America’s worst nightmare: young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.” He’s the young black male Id taken to its logical extreme, with no redeeming values other than his concern for his immediate friends. O-Dog is only concerned with living his life in the here and now by the code he sets for himself. That code is simple: take what you want, assault or kill anyone who would disrespect you or your homies, and never show weakness. He teases Caine for “acting like a bitch” when he was shot in the shoulder, yet, against Caine’s pleading and common sense brags and shows video of himself committing brutal murder, and even forgets for a moment that he had to tell Caine about committing a drive-by, like it was a grocery list that slipped his mind. He is constantly dismissive of Sharif’s Islamic teachings (although the rest of his group of friends are also), but is also equally dismissive of Caine’s grandfather’s Christian lessons as well, positing “I don’t think God really cares too much about us, or he wouldn’t have put us here...It’s messed up around here.” He is a fascinating and terrifying result of this toxic environment of readily available drugs and guns combined with a testosterone fueled youth machismo. Black men in these neighborhoods are killed or thrown in prison leaving their children to grow up in this vicious cycle. In the real world, Menace posits, there are only homies killing each other over stupid nonsense and the world keeps turning.
Unlike Boyz, Menace actually has a strong female character. I do mean just one, but still, one is better than none. Jada Pinkett Smith, plays Ronnie, Pernell’s old girlfriend before he was locked up for life. She has a son by Pernell, Anthony, and in a deliberate and eerie cycle, Caine misguidedly teaches Anthony how to be “hard” and “survive on the streets” almost in the same ways that Pernell taught him. Ronnie is a combination of all things female in this movie, love interest, mother, sex symbol, and damsel in distress. This may seem like an overload for the only strong female in the movie, but the film does a great job at keeping the character a strong independent woman in the face of this violent masculine stupidity. She strongly and consistently rebukes Caine and his friends for their “gangster” lifestyle, and does her best to raise her son properly. She has seen the outcomes of young men in these streets and urges Caine to do something with his life rather than end up dead, or in prison like her baby’s father, Pernell. Yet in spite of this she retains a role in the overall community, and is still cordial and friendly with many of Caine’s homies despite disapproving fervently of their actions and lifestyle. So much so that she decides to leave Watts by the end of the film for Atlanta (a nice homage to Boyz), with or without Caine. Her strong will, along with a combination of idiotic decisions on Caine’s part and eventually listening to Sharif and his father, finally convinces Caine to leave Watts and the lifestyle he’s lived thus far.
There’s a question that Caine’s grandfather asks him in the beginning of the film, “Do you care if you live or die?” His response is the nihilistic, “I don’t know.” To Caine, his life is utterly meaningless, especially when he could be killed at any point for trivial nonsense, and because there’s nothing to strive for other than the self perpetuating code of honor, living or dying seems interchangeable. Nevertheless, this question is answered at the end of the film, but by that point it's all too late. Throughout the movie, we witness Caine descend further into the spiral of systemic violence, crime, and police brutality, while he slowly realizes how poisonous his life has become. Jay-Z once bragged, “Place yourselves in the shoes of two felons/and tell me you won’t ball every chance you get and any chance you hit/you live for the moment makes sense don’t it?” The characters all want to live this flashy hustler lifestyle because they recognize their life is too short and can end in an instant, by a bullet or by prison. Caine’s parents violent genesis passed a legacy onto his broken generation in which selling drugs and killing each other over trivial nonsense is not only commonplace but required to continue this lifestyle. The prevailing nihilism and fatalism resign hope to cruel temptress that only exists for the few lucky enough to survive. Those that do end up like A-Wax content to be an O.G. within his depressing reality or like Stacy and hopefully escape. The ending is even bleaker than that of Boyz offering no hope for the future and no answers offered for the deep societal problems shown. Menace is an upsetting and entertaining film, which manages to have its gritty violence and tragic loss in the same breath.
TLDR: Menace II Society is an almost perfect nihilistic hood film. Bleak, tragic, and interspersed with gritty violence, the film packs a vicious punch within only 96 minutes. 5/5 Stars.
1. For Further reading, see Kenneth S. Greenberg’s, “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South”
Ebert, Roger. "Menace II Society Movie Review (1993) | Roger Ebert." All Content. Chicago Sun-Times, 26 Mar. 1993. Web. Feb. 2016. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/menace-ii-society-1993>.