The late eighties and early nineties were a wonderful time for urban dramas, through Spike Lee, John Singleton and others the projects and ghettos of America became a subject of much study in both fictional and documentary films. These gritty, violent and often moving stories of oppression and survival are their own unique brand of film that has often been redone and parodied at least once, and the Hughes Brothers 1993 film Menace II Society tops the list as one of the most prolific films in this genre. It provides a solid storyline that begins intensely and rarely falters and, like so many of its contemporaries, the film is politically fueled and is certain to remind viewers that they are being privileged by viewing a narrative that does not follow tradition. Furthermore, Menace II Society is an artistically sound film, which employs various camera and editing tricks to add ambiance to certain scenes and intensity to others. In addition, it may fact that the film is co-directed, but I am having trouble thinking of a film in this genre that is more concerned with minor details, as they relate adding validity to the larger narrative.
In an intense manner, typical of urban dramas, the film begins with two young black males purchasing beer from a local convenient store. The two men named Caine (Tyrin Turner) and O-Dog (Larenz Tate) are instantly targeted by the Korean owners as possible thieves. While upset by the storeowners acquisitions the duo agree to buy their beer and leave until the store owner makes a passing remark about the guys parents. Infuriated, O-Dog lashes out violently killing both of the owners and leaving with the surveillance tape and money in hand. We are then, after some archival footage of race riots and a refletion of Caine’s own youth with his drug dealing father Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), transferred to images of South Central Los Angeles as it stands in the early nineties. Caine is shown awaiting his upcoming graduation with indifference as he checks in on the status of his good friend Pernell’s (Glenn Plummer) ex-girlfriend Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her their son. After this visitation Caine, O-Dog and another older member of a gang named A-Wax (MC Eiht) attend a graduation party. This party fueled by drugs and alcohol introduces viewers to the other members of Caine’s crew which include the bright football prospect Stacy (Ryan Williams) and the thug turned Muslim Shariff (Vonte Sweet) This group agrees to head to a local fast food restaurant for a bite to eat only to encounter trouble from a rival gang that shoots and kills another member of their group, which leads to a desire for revenge amongst the group. The film then advances weeks to the point in which Caine and O-Dog are hired to do a car jacking for a fraudulent insurance company and when the robbery goes awry Caine is locked away briefly and questioned about his attachment to the convenient store murder shown earlier in the film. Able to escape the claws of justice given their lack of evidence, Caine is released and sets out on a life of hustling and drug dealing only to quickly become involved in pregnancy scares and gang feuds that leave him confused and concerned for his life. Ultimately, Caine decides to move to Atlanta with Ronnie and her son, after receiving the much desired approval of Pernell. Sadly, on the day he is set to leave Los Angeles himself and O-Dog are gunned down on Ronnie’s lawn. The film closes with images of Caine’s past flashing on the screen as he realizes too late that he cared about whether he “lived or died.”
I think the question to discuss after watching Menace II Society is what role accuracy plays in creating a respectable urban drama. Like its much earlier film noir predecessors, urban dramas require a large amount of violence, deceit and representations of minorities to be believable. It is precisely the concern with the non-traditional characters that makes Menace II Society superior to say Crash or many other Hollywood directed “urban dramas.” Often Hollywood tries to diversify its image, by making characters that all viewers can relate to, this is not the case for Menace II Society, as a white male of relative wealth I have not, nor do I plan to, experienced the atrocities that occur in underprivileged parts of the United States. However, I can realize when a film successfully portrays a subject and when it does not. The fact of the matter is that the experiences of many characters with Menace II Society are fairly accurate and representative of the gangsta culture of the early nineties. While there is certainly a large outcry against this film for its gratuitous violence, I find such criticisms to be petty and ungrounded, because I would argue that one only needs to watch a new broadcast for any metropolitan area in the United States to realize how truly abysmal the crime rate is in The United States. The Hughes Brothers have constructed a film that could just as easily be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the life of black teens in Los Angeles, given its uncanny accuracy and believability. In essence, this is a staple in understanding race relations in 1990’s America and one of the most pertinent urban dramas I have seen to date. The violence and profanity that occur in this film are in no way gratuitous but are instead necessary to capture viewers attentions to a reality that is occurring in the areas of our nation that we choose to ignore.
I am very sincere when I say you should own this movie and show it to your friends. It is a necessary viewing experience for its artistic and social relevance and the recent bluray release burns on the screen with passion and reality, unlike anything I have seen in quite some time.