Film Review: ‘Menace II Society’

 

“Hey, you ain’t gotta be creepin’,” O-Dog (Larenz Tate) tells the Asian shopkeeper at the convenience store. “Man, always think we gonna steal something,” he says to his friend Caine (Tyrin Turner). A minute later a remark from the cashier angers O-Dog so much he shoots the cashier and the shopkeeper.

After that opening scene, we get narration from Caine telling us about his childhood. His father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a pusher with a short fuse. During a poker game, he shoots another player. Little Caine looms in the background of the frame, wearing his pajamas. Menace II Society (1993) is filled with senseless violence. When the violence is not petty and impulsive, it’s just a link in an endless chain of retaliations. Violence is so mundane an aspect of these people’s lives, most don’t notice a difference between O-Dog and his obvious psychopathy and Caine who may well have been an upright citizen had he grown up in a different environment than the projects of LA.

Caine graduates high school, barely. His grandfather calls this the proudest he’s ever been. His grandfather raised him since his father and mother died in a drug deal gone wrong and by an overdose respectively. One of Caine’s friends, Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), is a single mother and one of the few people he knows trying to lead an honest life. Later she gets a job in Atlanta and offers Caine the chance to come with her and leave behind the gang life. It’s hard to say if his reluctance to join her stems from him not knowing any other path than the one he’s on, or if he can’t resist the allure of drugs, casual sex, and money.

We see in Caine glimpses of humanity and a desire for a better future. He tries to stop O-Dog from showing the surveillance tape of the convenience store shooting to their friends. He drops off wads of money in Ronnie’s dresser drawers, though she does tell him she doesn’t want his blood money. He listens intently as a friend’s father (Charles S. Dutton) gives him a lecture on turning his life around.

Menace II Society has a rather conservative viewpoint. Urban culture is depicted as destructive, degrading, unfulfilling. Of the few people who try to steer Caine away from gangbanging, two of them are not only religious but use religion to justify their arguments. Fatherlessness is near-universal. Pernell, a sort of mentor to Caine and father of Ronnie’s son, is in prison. From behind plexiglass, Pernell tells Caine to look after his son and “teach him better than I taught you.” Irresponsibility is rampant. When a girl calls Caine to tell him she’s pregnant, he accuses her of sleeping around. “So you’re man enough to take a life, but not man enough to take care of one?” she says, tears in her eyes.

That’s not to say the movie is a Republican dream. One of the religious people trying to set Caine straight is his friend Sharif, a convert to the Nation of Islam. In that aforementioned lecture, Sharif’s father tells him, “Being a black man in America isn’t easy. The hunt is on. And you’re the prey.” The police are shown as thuggish, on the prowl not on patrol. At one point, they brutalize Caine and Sharif, then drop them off in the territory of a Hispanic gang under the assumption they will beat them further.

Tyrin Turner plays Caine in Menace II Society.

The movie was directed by twin brothers, Allen and Albert Hughes, who were only 21 at the time. Some of the acting is spotty. Otherwise, the movie does not come off as a rookie production. This is strong, confident filmmaking. In one scene Caine and O-Dog run from the cops in a parking garage. They duck behind a car when a police dog attacks them, and the camera zooms into the cage-like grille of the car while we hear the boys’ screams. There’s a long take traveling through a house party that deserves more recognition.

The final scene has slo-mo, voiceover, montage, and a heartbeat pounding over the soundtrack. Unfortunate they felt the need to ornament the scene this way. The event is tragic enough by itself. It’s a logical fate for Caine; it’s a logical fate for thousands of young men in this country.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Hm.  Sounds like freedom of choice, to me.

    • #1
  2. Pagodan Member
    Pagodan
    @MatthewBaylot

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hm. Sounds like freedom of choice, to me.

    ?

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Pagodan (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hm. Sounds like freedom of choice, to me.

    ?

    Even though presented with alternatives, they chose to be violent thugs.

    • #3
  4. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hm. Sounds like freedom of choice, to me.

    ?

    Even though presented with alternatives, they chose to be violent thugs.

    Some relevant passages from the review:

    His father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a pusher with a short fuse. During a poker game he shoots another player. Little Caine looms in the background of the frame, wearing his pajamas.

    It’s hard to say if his reluctance to join her stems from him not knowing any other path than the one he’s on, or if he can’t resist the allure of drugs, casual sex, and money.

    For someone whose known this life since they were a toddler, it would be hard to leave for something brand new, especially when there’s so much easy gratification in sticking with the gang life. This is the culture they’ve been immured in their whole life.

    • #4
  5. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    While one can be sympathetic to the characters, given the origins of their pathologies, there is also a line beyond which it no longer matters.  I’m reminded of a line from the movie Manhunter, the original movie version of the book, Red Dragon, that was the prequel to Silence of the Lambs.  The main detective, talking about the guy they’re chasing:

    “My heart bleeds for this guy as a kid.  As an adult, I want to blow him out of his socks.”

    • #5
  6. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hm. Sounds like freedom of choice, to me.

    ?

    Even though presented with alternatives, they chose to be violent thugs.

    Some relevant passages from the review:

    His father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a pusher with a short fuse. During a poker game he shoots another player. Little Caine looms in the background of the frame, wearing his pajamas.

    It’s hard to say if his reluctance to join her stems from him not knowing any other path than the one he’s on, or if he can’t resist the allure of drugs, casual sex, and money.

    For someone whose known this life since they were a toddler, it would be hard to leave for something brand new, especially when there’s so much easy gratification in sticking with the gang life. This is the culture they’ve been immured in their whole life.

    Yes, they chose easy gratification and a short life.

    • #6
  7. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    While one can be sympathetic to the characters, given the origins of their pathologies, there is also a line beyond which it no longer matters. I’m reminded of a line from the movie Manhunter, the original movie version of the book, Red Dragon, that was the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. The main detective, talking about the guy they’re chasing:

    “My heart bleeds for this guy as a kid. As an adult, I want to blow him out of his socks.”

    The movie doesn’t absolve the characters of all wrongdoing. It’s unflinching in showing the harm Caine causes to those around him. In one scene, he shows Ronnie’s son his gun and let’s him hold it. He’s leading him down the same path his father did to him, and to someone who’s mother is trying desperately to raise right. Caine does decide to turn his life around and leave the ghetto, but by then he’s in too deep.

    The point is to highlight the environment that fuels all this behavior.

    • #7
  8. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    While one can be sympathetic to the characters, given the origins of their pathologies, there is also a line beyond which it no longer matters. I’m reminded of a line from the movie Manhunter, the original movie version of the book, Red Dragon, that was the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. The main detective, talking about the guy they’re chasing:

    “My heart bleeds for this guy as a kid. As an adult, I want to blow him out of his socks.”

    The movie doesn’t absolve the characters of all wrongdoing. It’s unflinching in showing the harm Caine causes to those around him. In one scene, he shows Ronnie’s son his gun and let’s him hold it. He’s leading him down the same path his father did to him, and to someone who’s mother is trying desperately to raise right. Caine does decide to turn his life around and leave the ghetto, but by then he’s in too deep.

    The point is to highlight the environment that fuels all this behavior.

    BTW, if you haven’t seen Manhunter, you should check it out.  Directed by Michael Mann, it’s very stylish, very 80s.  William Peterson in the lead.  Dennis Farina as Crawford, the guy played by Scott Glenn in SotL.  Young Stephen Lang as a sleazy report, Tom Noonan as the killer and Brian Cox as Lector.  I like him much better in the role; he is far more true to the book.

    (I stumbled into this movie in the wee hours one night, and five minutes in realized I had already read the book.)

    • #8
  9. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    BTW, if you haven’t seen Manhunter, you should check it out.  Directed by Michael Mann, it’s very stylish, very 80s.  William Peterson in the lead.  Dennis Farina as Crawford, the guy played by Scott Glenn in SotL.  Young Stephen Lang as a sleazy report, Tom Noonan as the killer and Brian Cox as Lector.  I like him much better in the role; he is far more true to the book.

    (I stumbled into this movie in the wee hours one night, and five minutes in realized I had already read the book.)

    I’ll have to check it out. Maybe I can make it a double-bill with Hannibal (I’ve already seen Silence of the Lambs, of course).

    • #9
  10. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    BTW, if you haven’t seen Manhunter, you should check it out. Directed by Michael Mann, it’s very stylish, very 80s. William Peterson in the lead. Dennis Farina as Crawford, the guy played by Scott Glenn in SotL. Young Stephen Lang as a sleazy report, Tom Noonan as the killer and Brian Cox as Lector. I like him much better in the role; he is far more true to the book.

    (I stumbled into this movie in the wee hours one night, and five minutes in realized I had already read the book.)

    I’ll have to check it out. Maybe I can make it a double-bill with Hannibal (I’ve already seen Silence of the Lambs, of course).

    The also remade this as Red Dragon, the book title.  Edward Norton.

    • #10
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen. 

    • #11
  12. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    I’d say that about the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, but not the non-exploitation films of the 90s. Superfly and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaaass Song were guidebooks. Menace II Society isn’t a left wing film, and unlike the earlier movies, whites, however brutally depicted, are a minor part of the story. 

    Serious crime dropped in the 90s. Black attitudes towards crime changed. There was a recognition that it was hurting them more than it was hurting us. Movies like this one played a role in that. Of course it was hard for them to admit that out loud. On the other hand, conservatives were slow to recognize and admit that blacks had come around on the issue. 

    Then 2020 happened and we were right back to the bad old days. 

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Recommended: Keenan Ivory Wayans’ Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the ‘Hood.

    • #14
  15. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    I’d say that about the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, but not the non-exploitation films of the 90s. Superfly and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaaass Song were guidebooks. Menace II Society isn’t a left wing film, and unlike the earlier movies, whites, however brutally depicted, are a minor part of the story.

    Serious crime dropped in the 90s. Black attitudes towards crime changed. There was a recognition that it was hurting them more than it was hurting us. Movies like this one played a role in that. Of course it was hard for them to admit that out loud. On the other hand, conservatives were slow to recognize and admit that blacks had come around on the issue.

    Then 2020 happened and we were right back to the bad old days.

    It was long before 2020.  It’s pretty clear now that the election of Barack Obama was the beginning of a long downward slide/spiral.

    • #15
  16. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Recommended: Keenan Ivory Wayans’ Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the ‘Hood.

    Message!

    • #16
  17. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    The lifestyle it depicts predated the movie and would’ve continued regardless of the movie. Anyone emulating the characters either didn’t pay attention or perhaps even finish the movie. That’s user error.

    These people’s parents (or lack thereof) and peers play a far greater role in their lives than any movie ever will.

    • #17
  18. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    The lifestyle it depicts predated the movie and would’ve continued regardless of the movie. Anyone emulating the characters either didn’t pay attention or perhaps even finish the movie. That’s user error.

    These people’s parents (or lack thereof) and peers play a far greater role in their lives than any movie ever will.

    I suspect it’s more like young people, including the young people in the movie, are convinced that THEY can do it better, and not have the same fate.

    • #18
  19. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This was the era of the “Black Pack”, a new wave of young black directors (and one or two not so young, like Ernest Dickerson). Everything from New Jack City to Poetic Justice was suddenly part of a movement. Especially in Los Angeles, home of the 1992 riots, the films captured a freeze frame of a specific phase of ghetto life–not the pseudo-revolutionary early Seventies, not the anarchy of the early crack days, but a settled-in criminality that was no longer glorified on screen.

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    I’d say that about the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, but not the non-exploitation films of the 90s. Superfly and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaaass Song were guidebooks. Menace II Society isn’t a left wing film, and unlike the earlier movies, whites, however brutally depicted, are a minor part of the story.

    You know the genre as a whole better than I do. I will point out many of those exploitation movies featured pushers as the bad guys. Coffy for one example.

    I think the late 80s, early 90s black films were an extension of and response to blaxploitation movies. Like those movies, they were black-centric and not about portraying blacks in a light flattering to white sensibilities, they dealt with subjects surrounding urban life. They differed by being more realistic. They weren’t influenced by Hong Kong action movies. They were made by auteurs.

    Serious crime dropped in the 90s. Black attitudes towards crime changed. There was a recognition that it was hurting them more than it was hurting us. Movies like this one played a role in that. Of course it was hard for them to admit that out loud. On the other hand, conservatives were slow to recognize and admit that blacks had come around on the issue.

    I think a lot of conservatives, especially back then, had an instantly dismissive attitude toward anything related to urban life. The type who would say “rap is crap” and think they’ve said something clever. I think they’re unwilling to deal with the fact that these depictions and black fans connection to them are often complicated. NWA (whose song “Dope Man” is featured in the movie) did glorify being a gangster, as did the Geto Boys, but then the Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was about the paranoia and pain of gang life.

    • #19
  20. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    The lifestyle it depicts predated the movie and would’ve continued regardless of the movie. Anyone emulating the characters either didn’t pay attention or perhaps even finish the movie. That’s user error.

    These people’s parents (or lack thereof) and peers play a far greater role in their lives than any movie ever will.

    I suspect it’s more like young people, including the young people in the movie, are convinced that THEY can do it better, and not have the same fate.

    The same is probably also true of Goodfellas and The Godfather.

    • #20
  21. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Seems to me a lot of people took “Menace II Society” as a kind of guide-book, not a warning.

    The lifestyle it depicts predated the movie and would’ve continued regardless of the movie. Anyone emulating the characters either didn’t pay attention or perhaps even finish the movie. That’s user error.

    These people’s parents (or lack thereof) and peers play a far greater role in their lives than any movie ever will.

    I suspect it’s more like young people, including the young people in the movie, are convinced that THEY can do it better, and not have the same fate.

    The same is probably also true of Goodfellas and The Godfather.

    Maybe it’s more an east-coast thing, “New Joizy” and what-not, but I’ve never seen anyone in my whole life who wanted to be or even pretend to be a mafioso.  Mafiosi?  Whatever.  But lots of white kids and hispanic kids go around pretending like they’re “street thugs” etc.  The movies don’t seem to be offputting to them.

    • #21
  22. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Recommended: Keenan Ivory Wayans’ Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the ‘Hood.

    It’s actually “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.”

    • #22
  23. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Have any of you seen Precious? If so, what did you think of it?

    • #23
  24. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Have any of you seen Precious? If so, what did you think of it?

    I’d be interested too since I haven’t seen it. Remember it was pretty acclaimed at the time, though even then there were critics calling it melodramatic and manipulative.

    It did inspire the funniest porn parody name ever (via 30 Rock), Fresh-Ass: Based on the Novel Tush by Ass-Fire.

    • #24
  25. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Have any of you seen Precious? If so, what did you think of it?

    I’d be interested too since I haven’t seen it. Remember it was pretty acclaimed at the time, though even then there were critics calling it melodramatic and manipulative.

    It was pretty full on.  I’m not sure a low key understated film on the subject matter would have really worked.  Think “Once Were Warriors” for the vibe.  (I think they’re both on Amazon.)

    It was the first film I’d seen (I’m sheltered) which used Black American dialect seriously and pretty much right through the film, so that was also noteworthy.

    It did inspire the funniest porn parody name ever (via 30 Rock), Fresh-Ass: Based on the Novel Tush by Ass-Fire.

    ha!  What is it about porn parody names that’s always so funny?

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Have any of you seen Precious? If so, what did you think of it?

    I’d be interested too since I haven’t seen it. Remember it was pretty acclaimed at the time, though even then there were critics calling it melodramatic and manipulative.

    It was pretty full on. I’m not sure a low key understated film on the subject matter would have really worked. Think “Once Were Warriors” for the vibe. (I think they’re both on Amazon.)

    It was the first film I’d seen (I’m sheltered) which used Black American dialect seriously and pretty much right through the film, so that was also noteworthy.

    It did inspire the funniest porn parody name ever (via 30 Rock), Fresh-Ass: Based on the Novel Tush by Ass-Fire.

    ha! What is it about porn parody names that’s always so funny?

    Two of the films I projected were parodies: An office sex comedy called Eight to Four, “For those who like to get in early”, and Expose Me Lovely, “It takes a hard cop to crack a tough case”.  

    • #26
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