The Film: Menace II Society (1993)
The Principals: Director: Allen & Albert Hughes, Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Glenn Plummer, Clifton Powell, Marilyn Coleman, Arnold Johnson, Pooh-Man, Julian Roy Doster, Too Short, Khandi Alexander, Vonte Sweet, Ryan Williams, Bill Duke, Dwayne L. Barnes, Charles S Dutton.
The Premise: Caine (Turner) is a product of the brutal, drug-ridden and crime-filled streets of South Central L.A. in the early ’90s. He’s a teenager who has seen way more than his share of despair and those around him either dying or going to jail long term, even permanently. As a result, Caine has become a lawless individual, doing whatever it takes to survive, and engaging in any illicit opportunity that presents itself, or that he makes for himself. Even more hardcore is his best friend, the volatile O-Dog (Tate), who will kill anybody in a heartbeat if they cross him, threaten him or even slight him. Eventually, the consequences of Caine’s and O-Dog’s misdeeds start to close in on them, and Caine must decide if he should face them to their inevitable conclusion or go away with friend and now lover, Ronnie (Pinkett) away from the streets that created him.
Is It Good: It’s great. Bleak, nihilistic and with little pretense that there were many opportunities for the denizens of this infamous section of Los Angeles other than going out in a blaze of glory or being hauled off by a gang of cops. Whereas the excellent Boyz N’ The Hood spurred on the genre in the early ’90s, Menace crystallized it with its tale of a disaffected youth with no prospects other than survival. Jada Pinkett’s Ronnie probably stated it most succinctly in the movie to Caine: “You need to be glad that you graduated from high school, and that you’re alive at eighteen, and you need to do something with yourself before you end up like [Pernell] did.” Just being grateful to be alive at 18? That’s a hell of a thing to give thanks for. Likewise, Caine’s grandfather asked Caine whether he cared if he lived or died. Caine replied he didn’t know.
Menace is the long, hard look at the gradual disintegration of one boy who had to learn to be a man way too early. Unlike Cuba Gooding, Jr.s Tre, who had a strong father figure in his life, Caine had his grandparents, who struggled to steer him on the right path. Truth was, they had lost him long before they finally kicked him out of their house near the end of the movie. Caine was a product of the streets and his relationship with O-Dog, who was easily the most volcanic young character in the slate of films like Boyz, Juice and South Central of the era.
To really hammer home the fact of the danger of the youth being bred on the streets of L.A. in the ’90s, perhaps the film should have focused on O-Dog. But truth to tell, there wouldn’t have been much to explore. Whereas Caine was slipping into the abyss, Caine had dove in head first long ago. Whatever Caine was going through, O-Dog had experienced much earlier. Per Caine’s description: “O-Dog was the craziest nigga alive. America’s nightmare. Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.” Caine’s first-person account also really added some personal heft to the movie. Menace was a character study on one individual rather than the broader look of South Central’s situation that Boyz was.
There were several great performances, particularly Turner and Pinkett; and Tate was just ridiculous as O-Dog. Afterwards, I was sort of surprised that Turner didn’t have a more noteworthy career than he did. He was powerful here, a boy struggling to be a man, but with no real notion of what that entailed. Charles S Dutton lent his usual gravitas to Mr. Butler, a teacher who managed to reach Caine, which was a rarity among adults. Per Caine: “My grandpops was always coming at us with that religion, and every time it would go in one ear and out the other.” The elders to whom Caine usually responded were usually malcontents, particularly Pernell (Glenn Plummer), who was one of the few to leave any lasting impression on Caine. Butler had Caine’s and even O-Dog’s ears…at least as much as could be expected: “Being a Black man in America isn’t easy.”
Clifton Powell has always been a favorite, and Bill Duke’s interrogation scene with Turner was classic, especially the nonchalant turning of the gun toward Caine on the table, almost hoping it would go off and save him the trouble of wasting his time with him. “You know you done fucked up, don’t you? You know it, don’t you? You know you done fucked up.” And Glenn Plummer’s scene as Pernell with Caine was an actual case of a boy looking at his future as a man…if he were lucky. Plummer was solid in South Central, but he does a lot here with the little screen time he had. Also loved MC Eiht essentially smoking his way through the entire movie. Menace II Society is my favorite movie of that slate of urban ghetto films of the ’90s and just writing about it now makes me want to check it out again soon.
Is It Worth A Look: A little.
Random Anecdotes: Tupac was fired from the movie due to Albert Hughes saying that he was causing trouble on the set. Tupac wanted to play O-Dog and not Sharif, Caine’s Muslim friend (eventually played by Vonte Sweet). This was the catalyst for Tupac assaulting Hughes months later and being convicted of assault and battery. Also, Menace held the record for a time of the most instances of the word, “fuck” with 300 in a 97-minute film. It’s still up there in terms of “fucks”-per-minute with 3.09.
Cinematic Soulmates: Boyz N’ The Hood, Juice, South Central