MENACE II SOCIETY

 
Directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes. USA. 1993.


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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On Friday, August 13th, 1965, the area known as Watts in south central Los Angeles erupted from a routine arrest of a drunk driver and escalated into a riot that lasted for six days and killed 34 people, almost all black. The Watts Riots showed Americans the depressed conditions of the area and led to the initial discussion of a redevelopment effort within the community. Almost 40 years later, little has changed. Unemployment rates are about twice the national average and the underlying issues of social dysfunction remain, seemingly immune to LAPD policing, the War on Drugs, or Habitat for Humanity housing programs. The despair of the inner city ghetto has never been more graphically and realistically presented than in the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society, a film of raw power film shot in Compton, California one year after the Rodney King incident that triggered the riots of 1992. 

The film is more of a collection of brutal images than a coherent narrative, an explosive and disturbing picture of a community mired in nihilism and the hopelessness that follows. Containing standout performances from young actors Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, and Jada Pinkett, the film's violence is graphic and realistic, avoiding (with some exception) the special effects and highly stylized violence we have come to expect from the genre. Caine (Turner), who narrates the film, is a product of the mean streets and has witnessed violence his whole life. His father, a dope dealer, and his mother, a heroin addict are both dead and Pernell (Glenn Plummer), the man who he turned to for guidance, is in prison. He is forced to live with his religious grandparents and his only adult companion is Pernell's girl Ronnie (Pinkett) and her five-year old son. By the time he is in high school he is already dealing drugs and carrying a weapon. His best friend is a borderline psychotic named O-Dog (Tate), the epitome of inner city youth who have no stake in society, kill without conscience, and whose self-respect is only as strong as the weapon they carry.

In the film's opening, a Korean grocer becomes the first target of the pent-up frustration of Caine and O-Dog who shoot them to death in a random, purposeless act after the grocer says that he pities their mother and asks them to leave the store. The videotape, retrieved by the killers during their escape, is sickeningly replayed throughout the film by O-Dog as entertainment at parties. The scene underscores the racism directed at Asian storekeepers, also depicted in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, and brings to mind the general problem of white storeowners who act as middlemen for corporations unwilling to set up franchises in the inner city. When a new Denny's restaurant opened recently, it was the first restaurant opened in Watts in thirty years.

Caine is bright and looking for a way out and we feel sympathy for him without supporting his violent actions and his unwillingness to take responsibility for his life. He is tempted by offers to escape, one with a friend who has become a Muslim and is leaving for Kansas, the other with Ronnie who is moving to Atlanta, but the only world that he is comfortable with consists of drugs, guns, and early death. We want him to get out before it's too late, but we know too well that it is hard to breakthrough the context of his life -- that is no hope and no way out. When he gets a neighborhood girl pregnant and refuses to help, the girl's cousin comes looking for him, leading to a climactic confrontation that leaves us desperate for answers yet unable to see any. Despite its cutesy title, Menace II Society is one powerful mother of a film.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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