The sleeper hit of 1993, Menace II Society, a harrowing nightmare about life in inner-city hell, is a powerhouse filmmaking debut by the Hughes brothers. 21-year-old twins Allen and Albert employ splendid cinematography and editing to place their gangster drama into a constantly shifting, predatory world, one that references both the history of Watts and the contemporary media’s culture of violence. Prompting comparisons to Mean Streets and Bonnie and Clyde, Menace II Society captures a sense of life at relentless risk with complete conviction.
Menace II Society is, without doubt, a very auspicious beginning for Allen and Albert Hughes, 21-year-old twins from Detroit. Having honed their craft on the assembly line of rap music videos, the Hughes brothers bring a raw, edgy, urban sophistication to bear on a complex narrative of generational anguish. They also deftly reconfigure and American icon—the gangster—and rewrite the classic gangster genre to fit a new era.
American cinema has always had a close relationship with the gangster. From as early as D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), through the Italian gangsters of the 1930s in Scarface, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy, to the romanticized Godfather epics of the early 1970s, Hollywood has relied on the gangster as one of its most identifiable villains. The assimilation of Michael Corleone into mainstream America in Godfather II, however, and Henry Hill snitching on his colleagues in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, both signaled the death of the traditional Hollywood mobster.
As these images fade, Hollywood has become increasingly familiar with a new breed of celluloid criminal, the modern day “gangsta,” whose turf has been transformed into the “hood,” whose mission in life is to “put in work,” and whose sole motivation is to take the art of “gangbanging” to a higher level. Menace II Society adds to the genre, but makes a point of not capitalizing on the “allure” of the gangster lifestyle.
The film’s main character, Caine, describes in voice-over what we see on the screen. After the opening scene, the film reverts to footage of the 1965 Watts rebellion. The Hughes brothers use this historical quotation to chart a version of America that has reduced its African-American citizens to positions of complicit silence. The hopelessness of ghetto existence is handed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom, In these historical circumstances, young males grow up to become, in Caine’s description of O-Dog, “America’s nightmare: young, black, and don’t give a fuck.”
Told in the tradition of Sunset Boulevard‘s Joe Gillis, Caine’s voice-over narration clues us into the perverted psyche of life in the ‘hood. This vividly portrayed life ranges from racial confrontations between Korean merchants and African-American youth, to car-jackings, drive-by shooting, teenage pregnancy, and the inevitability of either the penitentiary or the cemetery as one’s eventual place of residence.
Like the gangster films of the ‘30s which documented the realities of the depression, Menace II Society could easily be construed as a cinematic version of the evening news. Unlike its precursors, however, which utilized new sound technology to create a heightened sense of realism, Menace shuns mere media redundancy, going instead for a heightened stylization.
On many occasions, the Hughes brothers visually choreograph life’s mundane moments into feats of pure spectacle. We witness a police chase filmed with the desperate grace of an Olympic track event. We catch a subtle critique through the use of a low-angle shot that contrasts Caine’s “blackness” with a picture of the “blue-eyed Jesus” who adorns the living room wall. And we connect Caine’s unmitigated anger with his father’s rage through an incredible camera pan that says more than any complex plot point ever could.
This visual stylization foregrounds the role of media spectacle, which is also addressed in the film via the security camera videotape that documents the exploits of Caine and O-Dog in the opening scene. The tape becomes a hot commodity, circulating through a community of friends and catapulting the two boys into a notoriety that come of being linked with the greatest killers in the history of Hollywood.
The characters are continually confronted by images that define and categorize their existence. We watch Caine squirm as he is forced to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with his grandfather. A gangster film on the television in Caine’s hospital room serves as both a pale comparison to life in the ‘90s and a reminder of the inevitable downfall of the gangster. Caine is ultimately trapped between Hollywood’s presentation and O-Dog, who has been completely sutured by visual imagery to the point of being unable to distinguish between movies and life.
The visual stylization is underscored by the Hughes brothers’ masterful musical cues that incorporate the best of 1970s soul music with a range of hip-hop-influenced music that defines our current society. The soundtrack for Menace, like Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly and L.A. and Babyface’s work on the soundtrack to Boomerang, functions to make a good film that much better by extending our experience through the rich musical heritage that African-American oral culture haws always provided.
Menace II Society ends up redefining this genre from “gangster” to “gangsta.” It also serves notice that the most recent wave of African-American film remains a powerful force in popular culture, and it indicates a very promising future for the twins.