Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(2) (1993) 12-14
Building upon the groundwork laid by films such as BOYZ N THE HOOD and STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN, the Hughes brothers weave a despairing tale of urban violence in America's black communities. MENACE II SOCIETY traces the vicissitudes of a group of friends in the chaotic environment of Watts. The narrative revolves around the anti-hero Caine, a small time drug dealer, who was raised by his devoutly religious grandparents because his mother died of a heroin overdose and his father was killed in a drug deal when Caine was a young child.
The film opens with Caine and his closest friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) attempting to purchase some malt liquor at a Korean-run convenience store. As soon as they enter the store, the proprietors have the young black men under dogged surveillance, fearful of their possible intentions. Resentful of the Korean store owners' antagonistic perceptions, O-Dog quickly escalates into explosive violence upon hearing one shopkeeper jeeringly state, "I feel sorry for your mother." So begins the cataclysmic venture of Caine and his pals, each scene punctuated with machismo and brutal violence, seemingly engendered by the surrounding social circumstances.
The film then suggests that the current ethos of the Watts community can be genealogically traced to the riots of 1965. By tying the community's current social problems, such as drugs and violence, to the systematic oppression (perceived or realistic) derived from white America's vision of law and order in the 1960's, the Hughes brothers present several poignant questions. What are the implications of the 1992 L.A. riots to that city's future twenty years from now? Does the genesis of the recent L.A. riots rest within the Watts riots? Do riots help or hinder a communities' future development? Are the destinies[End page 12] of precious African-American children in the big cities of America already set? MENACE II SOCIETY answers the last question with a resounding, "Yes!"
While oppression and isolation from the dominant society appears to be a necessary ingredient for the current misfortunes of African-American violence, the directors locate the specific etiology within the process of learning destructive and violent behaviors via social interactions. Caine learns how to sell and mix drugs as well as kill by witnessing his father murder several people before meeting his own demise. His father substitute, an older streetwise youth, mentors Caine on life within a tough urban community, specifically teaching him how to shoot a gun. Peer influence is depicted as the paramount force in the molding of the young black man's destiny. Illustrative of this learning experience, Caine himself tries to teach his former mentor's son how to use a gun. These young men epitomize the concept of the tabula rasa. Having self destructive behaviors impressed upon them at such an early age, these young men are guided onto paths condemned by society. With this as a major theme, the film also allows educators an opportunity to traverse the well-traveled ground of learning theories.
Caine and his friends exist within the artificial Hollywoodesque world of the gangster, each trying to outdo the other in arbitrary, but vicious, fits of machismo. The arbitrariness of life on the streets is intricately woven with the systematic oppression, politically and economically, of the dominant world. Yet, the most compelling statement by the film-makers is made when Caine's grandfather confronts him about his consistent involvement in trouble. Prophetically, the grandfather asks, "Do you wanna live or die?" After a moment of pondering, Caine replies, "I don't know." The absence of any value placed upon his life or others is endemic in urban American society, particularly African- American, and the Hughes brothers, with this exchange, excellently detail this tragic fact.
Propelled by a sizzling soundtrack, the visceral impact is overwhelming. From the opening scene to the narrative climax, this movie vibrates with an openness and freshness unparalleled among movies of a similar vein. For a film directorial debut, the Hughes brothers (21 year old twins) have demonstrated that they will be a force to reckon with for many years. The cast gives solid performances all around,[End page 13] making for a truly entertaining and informative film. It is a rare cinematic experience when a film paints such an unsympathetic character like Caine, strongly played by Tyrin Turner, in a sympathetic light. The movie screams at the audience, "Caine is not a killer but a victim!"
Since this film not only tries to illuminate the social circumstances that underlie seemingly incomprehensible acts of violence and destruction within our impoverished neighborhood but also attempts to dissect the roots of African-American violence, it provides a plethora of topics for ANY classroom discussion. For example, one may ask the class how is the police's role depicted in this movie and how closely does it conform to real life policing and real life perceptions of policing? Or what is the role of women in the movie and what role do they play in the violent streets of urban America? In addition, what ideological message about drugs is communicated throughout the movie? Finally, the film hints at various other social theories of black urban violence (e.g., Strain, Control, Social Disorganization, Radical, and Subcultural), making this the perfect movie to show at the end of a theory course. For example, one might ask students to name all of the theories suggested by the film and support their assertions with evidence gleaned from the movie. Used in conjunction with books such as Roger Lane's "Roots Of Violence In Black Philadelphia: 1860-1900" or John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers," MENACE II SOCIETY can provide the class with a rare glimpse at the complexity of the black urban crime and violence phenomenon that is running rampant across the garbage strewn streets of inner city America. Given the film's bold commentary on urban African-American life and its ability to conjure up strong emotions in the audience, this reviewer metes out three and a half gavels.
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice[End page 14]