Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes
Written by: Tyger Williams (Based on a story by: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes, Tyger Williams)
Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Glenn Plummer
Following the enormous success of John Singleton’s hit Boyz n the Hood, films set in South Central Los Angeles were going for a dime a dozen, and the hood drama was becoming all the rage in early 1990’s North America. In 1993 – just two years following that hit – the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, made their high profile directorial debuts with the surprise hit Menace II Society. The film takes a great deal of thematic and stylistic inspiration from the aforementioned Boyz n the Hood, which was the case for a great deal of films of the time. The twin brothers capitalized on its success the same way Gordon Parks Jr. did with Super Fly after his father’s hit Shaft was met with such widespread acclaim. The pre-production and casting phase of the movie went through various stars before shooting could begin, with hugely popular rappers MC Ren of N.W.A. fame and Tupac Shakur both attached to the project at some point. Tupac’s involvement is perhaps most notorious, as it resulted in a lawsuit after the hip hop star assaulted one of the film’s directors following a series of arguments about the religious views of one of the film’s primary characters. The film stars future big names like Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Larenz Tate. Shot on a budget of only $3.5 million, Menace II Society was a modest hit at the box office, raking in a very impressive $30 million and ensuring that Allen and Albert would find Hollywood careers soon after. Menace II Society was made with positive reviews upon its release, helping the small production slide into a more mainstream audience. The film was noted for its gritty portrayal of young black Americans in South Central, holding no punches when it came to the violent content displayed on-screen. It received an award at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards, and was regarded by many critics as one of the better films to see a release that year. The Hughes Brothers have continued to work in Hollywood since their successful debut, directing hits like Dead Presidents, From Hell, and most recently The Book of Eli. In 2013, Allen Hughes would make his solo directorial debut with Broken City, temporarily leaving Albert to work on projects of his own.
We follow young Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) as he struggles with living life in South Central as a young, underprivileged man of color. Caine’s father was killed in a drug deal, and his mother is currently a heroin addict. The young man has grown up with his grandparents, who are proud of what he has accomplished despite everything. What they don’t yet know is that Caine is a drug dealer himself, and associates himself with a group of young gangbangers. After being an accessory in a brutal convenience store shooting that his friend Kevin (or O-Dog) (Larenz Tate) triggered, Caine’s life as a young dealer will never again be the same. After being carjacked and seeing a friend killed, Caine, O-Dog, and A-Wax (MC Eiht) track down the murderers and kill them, furthering the cycle of violence. Caine and O-Dog are soon recruited by a local thug named Chauncy (Clifton Powell) for more petty crimes, but are arrested after the police are tipped off about their activities. Caine is suspected by the police for taking part in the convenience store killings, but the evidence is too shaky to prosecute the young man. Soon after being released, Caine finds out a fling of his has resulted in a pregnancy, and his partnership with Chauncey quickly begins to deteriorate after aggressive behaviour from both parties. Will Caine and his friends be able to escape from the hood lifestyle that has claimed the lives of so many of their peers, or will the cycle of violence make its way back to them? Find out in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society.
There’s a lot to admire about The Hughes Brothers’ debut feature, especially because of its status as a first-time project from both men. Menace II Society feels incredibly competent in the way it’s directed, with its camera never stopping for too long, and instead constantly moving and jumping around as Caine’s situation gets more and more dire. The editing and cinematography are two more elements to be appreciated, especially because of the relatively low budget of the film. South Central feels hot and grimy during the movie’s many daytime scenes, with its night scenes giving a sense of dread and mystery lying in the darkness of the hood. The very large problem with Menace II Society comes in the form of its script, which is far too problematic for this to be a “good” film in my books. Where Boyz n the Hood realistically portrays young people in desperate situations doing desperate things, Menace instead opts for a great deal of incredibly violent sequences that don’t do anything to further the stakes at hand. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about any moment found in Menace II Society – in fact, I’m not even sure if the film would know the definition of the word. The characters suffer greatly from poor writing, with not a single character except for Caine’s grandparents and lover being sympathetic in any way. When the violence erupts on screen, you feel absolutely nothing for these young men. There’s no sense of hatred, despair, or empathy – instead, even the most brutal moments are met with a shrug of the shoulders and the hope that maybe the next scene will be more impactful. But that next impactful scene never comes. The performances found in the film are surprisingly good, especially given the material they’re left to work with. The standout performance comes from Larenz Tate, who plays O-Dog. Tate’s young character is truly despicable in almost every scene of Menace II Society, never making a single good or unselfish decision in his actions. He views violence as an afterthought, and never seems to hesitate when acting out violently. Tate’s performance is delightfully fun to watch, despite the very clearly horrific things he’s doing. Samuel L. Jackson’s brief showing is also a delight, but is ruined by more senseless and emotionless violence found in the film’s screenplay.
Menace II Society is an ambitious and incredibly well-made directorial debut from two men who clearly have great chemistry together when working behind a camera. Unfortunately, it learns nothing from its admiration of Boyz n the Hood, and instead uses the opportunity to festishize hood violence. The film’s script is a tragedy, as it eclipses some very good performances from a talented young cast, and a well-made picture on most technical levels. If you’re looking for a highly dumbed-down version of Boyz n the Hood, this one may just be up your alley! If you’re looking for something a little more substantial and meaningful, especially in the realm of African American filmmakers, then I would steer clear. Menace II Society is not recommended.