Title: Menace II Society
Director: Allen & Albert Hughes
Cast: Tyrin Turner, Larenz Tate, Charles S. Dutton, Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, MC Eiht, Bill Duke
Synopsis: Growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Caine (Turner) is sent to live with his grandparents after his father is murdered in a drug deal and his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Caine and his friend O-Dog (Tate) grow up and become members of the Grape Street Watts Crips; along with their crew, Caine and O-Dog beef with rival gangs, police, and (occasionally) each other. While violent interactions escalate, Caine finds love with his incarcerated mentor’s ex, Ronnie (Pinkett). Their relationship is also a means to escape the Watts District and gang life. However, Caine’s criminal history catches up with him.
Critique: I think that somewhere along the line, the work of the Hughes Brothers was lost in the line of “hood movies” that followed the debut of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.
That’s not to denigrate New Jack City, Juice, Clockers, Colors or to try and say I wasn’t laughing through most of Don’t be a Menace to South Central When You’re Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (because I was). But Menace II Society is a brewing kettle of thematic commitments and street hewn shooting techniques that boil over into a punchy and vital narrative – the calibrated sensibilities are gritty, violent, tough, and serious but not self-serious (though some moments are a bit on the nose). The film is a remarkably non-exploitive, intelligent, and powerful look gangster life lensed through the tangential format via two friends of contrasting but similar characteristics that can be seen as victims of their own fate, or cogs in a system that fails everyone. Menace II Society stands on its own two feet mainly due to the overall naturalistic conception of the film from the Hughes Brothers, who not only directed but wrote and produced a stellar feature debut. Having said that, this movie is an important hallmark in the larger conversation of Black Cinema, in that Menace II Society is an independently produced film in league with other such works from Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, and recently (in terms of the film’s release) John Singleton with his seminal 1991 film Boyz n the Hood. It’s almost impossible to discuss Menace II Society without contrasting it to Boyz n the Hood, while Singleton’s debut is the kind of film that had as much to say as it did show, Menace II Society is less preach and more teach. A revealing and graphic turn that’s indicative in the neo-realist spirit, as well as being in the mold of the American New Wave, as well as a film that aims to entertain, without pulling punches or taking an easy way out. The Hughes Brothers know the rhythm and timing of a movie and their debut feature is intelligently assured as it is visually engrossing. Influential modernism was a fundamental requisite by the time this film was made and the Hughes Brothers evoke the spirited energy of the gangster films preceding them and, in proving their aesthetic prowess, utilize the malleability of the medium. The result: A recognizable genre film that reinvents itself through self-evolution from “gangster” to “gangsta” without embellished glorification. The reflective impression of Menace II Society is always a reference point to the hood movie subgenre before and after its inception and some lazily handled interpretations have condemned Menace II Society, stating that it’s comparatively paled in the shadow of more contemporary criminal iterations on television such as The Wire or The Shield. But, the very notion of judging something for being surpassed by the work it likely inspired is moronic.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: I’m sure the collective reaction to this selection might be inquisitive but in the spirit of Criterion’s mission statement of “A Continuing Series of Classic and Contemporary Films,” I would deem Menace II Society as more than important, a landmark title in the ever expansive language of American cinema. And it doesn’t seem like I’m leading a lost cause seeing as Criterion was on the same page (at least upon the time of release) because Menace II Society was one of the many great titles in Criterion’s Laserdisc days. Some movies are lost from the collection; we can wish for them to come back on DVD & Blu-Ray but I doubt we’ll see the likes of Halloween, Akira, or Pulp Fiction. However, the case for Menace II Society is different. The Laserdisc version of the film in question is something of a collector’s item as it’s one of the few (that I know of) unrated versions of the movie to get an official release in North America. The New Line Cinema Blu-Ray of Menace II Society offers a very nice transfer (that looks and sounds great), but it’s listed as a director’s cut while printed with an R-Rating.
One curiosity that could be a potential bonus feature is the deleted scene that included Caine in a prison riot that follows his arrest for grand theft auto (or “joyriding” since he had no priors). For those who might wonder if this film is “worthy” of the Criterion treatment it might be beneficial to revisit Menace II Society. Also, consider that Criterion is a distribution company, a very distinctive one (if not the most in home video) at that, and it shouldn’t exclude anything that isn’t our perception of foreign, arthouse cinema. Sometimes the most vital art is the sown from the seeds of social realism.