“Being a Black man in America isn't easy. The hunt is on, and you're the prey. All I'm saying is, all I'm saying is…survive! All right?” When Mr Butler (Charles S. Dutton) utters those words in Menace II Society, the emotional poignancy it transmits speaks volumes on the cultural mood of Black America. Just like films of its era – Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City and Bill Duke's Deep Cover, Black consciousness entered the mainstream with a visceral rawness about an undeniable truth. There are two Americas. One that benefits the status quo, based on a society built on violence and subjugation. The other is an honest question: how do we break free of those institutional cycles designed to keep Blackness down, in their place and collectively inhuman?
It shouldn't go without saying how significant Allan and Albert Hughes' film is. In its visual language – styled like a Scorsese film (with narration and tracking shots) but filmed like a documentary (no doubt influenced by the Hughes Brothers' music video careers), highlights an expendable feeling amongst the youth. The context (particularly the film's use of Watts, Los Angeles in the 60s, where police brutality against the Black community was justified as ‘law and order') moulds an argument how generational trauma and hopelessness shapes the person you grow to become. Children are growing up faster than expected in the ‘City of Angels' – an ironic nickname when its inner-city streets are a war zone. And when systems and structures fail, education comes from whatever source is attainable to survive, and that exploration in Menace II Society is violent, grim, and incredibly tragic.
That mood is summed up in its opening scene where Caine (Tyrin Turner) and O-Dog (an incredible feature film debut by Larenz Tate) enter a Korean American store for malt liquor. While subjected to racial profiling, it's a commentary on the growing tensions between Blacks and Asians in that period, specifically, the real-life murder of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins. Menace II Society is a response – the fear, the pain and the anger exploding into harmful and destructive acts. And its shocking consequence sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
The disheartening and severe bleakness felt throughout illustrates why Menace II Society is a cultural force to be reckoned with. Like an ode to Scorsese's Goodfellas, it refuses to hold back, using escalation and tension to create emotional unease. The cleverness behind the Hughes Brothers' direction is how they weave each segment of its story as a vignette of emotions – community, love, and violent retributions – fading or panning to black whenever it reaches a critical peak.
Turner's multi-layered performance as Caine – switching between innocence and violent recklessness – is instrumental to this cautionary tale. Told from his perspective, we follow him as he floats between two conflicting lives – life and death. Hope and guidance for a better future are found in characters such as Mr Butler, Jada Pinkett Smith's Ronnie, Sharif (Vonte Sweet), or his religious grandparents (played by Arnold Johnson and Marilyn Coleman). But that promise of escape is always rejected. Even when Caine is arrested and interrogated by the police (played impeccably by Bill Duke), where the camera circles around him as if the vultures were closing in on dead meat, it's still not enough to shake him out off his mental grip. The weight and pull of the streets are a powerful magnet for a reality that has become normalised.
The film's personal introspection of Caine is offset by Tate's O-Dog. If Turner can shift through the emotional gears of his turmoil, Tate revels in playing a character devoid of them. Violence is an answer to everything. Doing what is necessary is a life he's accustomed to. It's why watching him celebrate a murder by watching it on videotape (like a greatest hits montage) or shooting a drugged-up man in search of his next fix goes to illustrate the desensitising nature of his existence. He lives in the moment as “America's nightmare”.
And despite elements of Menace's twisted humour, such as Caine carjacking a man at a drive-in restaurant and forcing him to order food, this is not about glamorising a culture. The script written by Tyger Williams knowingly understands the difficulties and pressures faced by a generation. Menace's appeal (still relevant in 2021) never shies away from reality, no matter how brutal it is.
Menace II Society's exemplary work doesn't sugarcoat what life is like growing up in that environment. It's why it is never an easy watch, because as the audience, you're placed front and centre of that chaos when the value of life is recognised far too late. Now that it is a Criterion release with a stunning 4K restoration, it remains an important chapter in understanding why the streets are more than what is stereotypically portrayed in the media.
Menace II Society is available to buy through the Criterion Collection