Friday, July 29, 2016
Directors: Hughes Brothers
Writers: Hughes Brothers, Tyger Williams
Photography: Lisa Rinzler
Music: Quincy Jones III
Editor: Christopher Koefoed
Cast: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larenz Tate, Ryan Williams, Vonte Sweet, MC Eiht, Arnold Johnson, Marilyn Coleman, Clifton Powell, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles S. Dutton, Bill Duke, Too $hort
Identical twins Albert and Allen Hughes made music videos for Tupac Shakur, Tone Loc, and others before embarking on Menace II Society, which they made when they were not even yet 21. The youth shows in some obvious ways, such as the blatant mimicry of Goodfellas, a picture that deeply informs this one's style and themes, and in other occasional clumsy notes. What shows even more, however, is the prowess with mood and setting, an uncanny ability to capture the life of African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles during that time. I wasn't there, but it feels like real life. We see people of good will living with one another and trying to get along, as well as the desperation and brutality of much of its youth, who are visibly suffocating by the limitations imposed on them all.
Very early, and more than once, the movie slips on documentary garb to inform us in the background and invoke Watts 1965 and Los Angeles 1992. These are the things our characters know, grew up on, live with. More than anything, Menace II Society tells a great human story of the struggle to survive. In fact, one of its most potent scenes is about exactly that, when Charles S. Dutton as a wiser elder, Mr. Butler, counsels our main man and narrator, Caine (Tyrin Turner), and his best buddy O-Dog (Larenz Tate), as follows: "Being a black man in America isn't easy. The hunt is on. And you're the prey. All I'm saying is—survive." Allen Hughes put it another way when the picture debuted at Cannes: "If you hate blacks, this movie will make you hate them more."
Menace II Society came in with a wave of passing interest in African-American cinema and police relations that started in the late '80s. Pictures such as Dennis Hopper's Colors and especially Spike Lee's work, especially Do the Right Thing, examined the effects of systematic racial impoverishment, relations between police and community, and the drug-dealing gang life, which was then reaching grotesque new levels of violence, with drive-by shootings, carjackings, and such. The Rodney King police beating and all the events that followed, up to and including the Los Angeles riots of 1992, along with trends in hip hop music such as N.W.A., added further fuel, and they cast long shadows over this movie. Suddenly movies like this seemed to be everywhere: Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, and Juice are other examples.
Menace II Society may be structured and executed like Goodfellas, but it's just the frame for the strange batch of characters who confront us, put together by the Hugheses with brilliant intuition. They spotted Tyrin Turner, who plays Caine, doing reenactments on TV's America's Most Wanted. Jada Pinkett, Caine's complicated romantic interest Ronnie, came from daytime soaps. Larenz Tate, who plays the psychopath O-Dog, who is only a few steps short of Li'l Ze from City of God, was doing sitcoms and Matlock. Some of the best gems of this movie are the small parts, like Dutton's. Samuel L. Jackson plays Caine's father with typical Jacksonian intensity, even, or especially, in slo-mo. Bill Duke (Predator) is a threatening, mocking, eerie, and relentless police interrogator.
Menace II Society takes all kinds of interesting chances with its storytelling. In interviews, the Hugheses have said they attempted to adapt each scene to the style that fits it. That could start to look like lack of continuity and random pastiche in less sure hands. Instead, the vignettes establish their own rhythm as they come, and many of these scenes feel like intricate processes of discovery. The picture often explodes with violence, but rarely feels sensational. Every death is a sad one. It has a great sense of the urban environments of Los Angeles, not just Compton but places like parking garages. And the script is good too—balanced, symmetrical, practically three-act classical.
The story is simple and often familiar, using a basic escape-from-the-ghetto template. But it's unusually realistic about how likely success is in these cases, which is only one of the things that puts it a cut above much of the rest. Caine is the son of a dope-dealing mother and father, a second-generation gangster who nonetheless instinctively wants out of the life. But he can't help getting caught in all the usual traps. When he sees his cousin murdered, he wants revenge, and doesn't care about the risk. Indeed, in the very first scene, shopping in a Korean convenience store with O-Dog which unexpectedly turns into O-Dog's first murder, his doom is written. He has many more mistakes to make along the way. This movie is as fair as it can be about that, which only makes all subsequent events that much more poignant as they unfold. "I had done too much to turn back," Caine says, "and I had done too much to go on."