Caine said those words like he was reading from a vegan grocery list, calm, composed, but those lines opened a film that blazed the indie box office. In 1993 Menace II Society , like the Rodney King riots one year earlier, showed America the ever-growing social unrest blistering in the South Central LA heat. Each explosive scene lit a fuse. Every exchange of gunfire was a shot was heard around the country. Audiences were hyped on Menace, hyped like O-Dog on Olde E. The genius of the film lies not in its raw expression of young Black rage, however. The genius of the film is that that rage is never exploitative.
Directed by the then very young and the very sure-handed twins Albert and Allen Hughes and written by Tyger Williams, Menace II Society starts off with a bang (literally) and never takes its hands off of the audience’s jugular. The violent, explosive opening with Tyrin Turner playing Kaydee (Caine) Lawson and Larenz Tate as Kevin (O-Dog) Anderson in a confrontation with Korean store owners lets suburban viewers know they are not in Kansas anymore. After the opening scene, the Hughes brothers masterfully provide context to contemporary Black on Black violence in South Central LA by showing footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the police brutality that started it all.
South Central was actually a nice, middle class Black community after WW II due to the great migration and ample, good-paying factory jobs. In the 1940s, most of the gang activity in South Central was dominated by whites who, organized under names like the Spook Hunters, sought Black residents to harass and physically assault. African American street gangs like the Slausons were formed in response, to protect Black residents from the Spook Hunters. These gangs grew in numbers until the 1965 Watts Riots, after which former Slauson Gang member Bunchy Carter broke from the Renegades Set to form the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
The rise of the Black Power Movement and Black Panther demand for a restructuring of the preexisting social order threatened the Good Old Boys’ way of life, and J. Edgar Hoover developed the covert FBI counter intelligence program COINTELPRO to discredit black men, rip apart families, and introduce drugs; crime; and murder as the dominant cultural/religious Godhead of a once prosperous and proud community seeking elevation through overt social change. After Carter’s 1969 murder on the campus of UCLA, a void in youth activity ripped open, and the Crips and, later, the Bloods formed in South Central. The aftereffect of COINTELPRO is where the Hughes brothers drop us, like being plopped right into the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden jungle of the Vietnam War, right dead center of a hot mess of fatherless, rudderless, religionless children left on their own to figure out the difference between manhood and materialism.
Caine, the protagonist of the story, is a victim of circumstance. He is nice, polite, and thoughtful. Caine is the type of dude in the hood that everyone would try to help. Teachers, nurses, and pastors would try to save his very salvageable soul. In another community at another time (or in another film, like the Oscar-winning hit Good Will Hunting), Caine might have turned out to be a fireman, an accountant, or a doctor, but in South Central, like in most hoods in America “You’re either slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot”.
In a flashback sequence, we see Caine’s childhood is just as dysfunctional as Matt Damon’s Will, who tells, but never lets the audience see, his pathological past. In Menace, Little Caine wakes up from the noise of his parents’ house party, and in this brief glimpse of Caine’s early life we see him, still in his pajamas, given whiskey to drink and a gun to hold. Young Caine watches his mother shoot up and sees his father, Tat, played by Samuel L. Jackson, gamble and then shoot a man over money and perceived disrespect. Caine’s father later dies from a drug deal gone bad, and his mom dies from a drug overdose.
Caine forms friendships as strong as family, because he loses the mother and father who should have been strong and wise enough sustain him in these mean streets. Caine’s best friend, O-Dog “Was the craziest nigga alive, America’s nightmare. Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.”
O-Dog is a sociopathic maniac in the vein of Joe Pesci ‘s character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Talking about O-Dog’s mother is akin to telling Tommy DeVito to go get his shine box. He is also a brother to Caine, a family member by blood – but not by shared blood in their veins. O-Dog and Caine are bound by the blood they spill on the streets.
Because his mother and father died, Caine lives with his conservative, Christian grandparents. A week after high school, the drug-selling Caine watches his cousin, Harold (Saafir), die after the two of them are carjacked. Caine, who is shot in the shoulder during the car-jacking, recuperates in his grandparents’ apartment. Alone in his room, Caine watches the 1948 semi-documentrary film He Walked by Night, and his body physically responds to the violence onscreen with an uncontained glee that is eerily disturbing given the real-life violence he just experienced.
Caine’s grandparents call him to join them in the living room, where they watch the James Stewart (Rear Window, Vertigo) classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Their bodies also physically respond to the film, with soft chuckles and pleased head nods that sharply contrast with Caine, who looks at his grandparents in disbelief.
These films within the film help the viewer understand the bigger picture: the inter-generational conflict that grows from the gap between Caine and his grandparents. Without Caine’s parents between them, offering a bridge of understanding between two eras in Black American history, the relationship between these elderly grands and the youth they’ve been forced to guide to manhood is doomed to collapse in an abyss of failure.
Significantly, however, Caine is viewing a film from their good old days. He Walked by Night was released just 2 years after It’s a Wonderful Life. Based on the real-life story of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a corrupt civilian Glendale, California police radio dispatcher who also served in the army during WWII before unleashing a year-long string of burglaries and shoot-outs, He Walked by Night culminates in a literal sewer, among the filth of the city where the fictional Roy (Richard Baseheart) runs underground, away from the law he once represented, until, blocked by the tire of a police car, he is gunned down by his former colleagues. Set in the criminal underworld of a corrupt Los Angeles County, He Walked by Night acts as much as a contextual cinematic anchor for Menace II Society as does the newsreel footage of the Watts Riots.
He Walked by Night recalls Ramparts, the anti-gang division of the LAPD that engaged in extreme misconduct and destroyed countless Black families in the Los Angeles area – an area, and an era, where young men like Caine are unable to place a value on their own lives.
Grandfather: “Do you care whether you live or die?”
Caine: “I don’t know.”
Given these connections to our nation’s history, Caine’s story is not a Black American story; it is a quintessentially American narrative. When Caine, A-Wax (MC Eiht), and O-Dog seek revenge for Harold’s murder, we see how the cycle of violence is a strong thread in the fabric of the hood’s DNA. Decades, indeed, centuries, of killings were sewn by each needle point stitched into the red, white, and blue.
In this scene we also see Caine has morals and rules where his nihilistic brethren have none. Caine defiantly insists that they not shoot in an area where women, children, or older people may be hit by their bullets.
Despite his wild ass friends and limited world view, Cain
does form family with progressives who do care whether
he lives or dies. They try to unshackle Caine’s mind and
pull him out of the quagmire that muddles characters in
Menace II Society. Caine’s militant Muslim friend
Stacy (Ryan Williams), the football player that made it out of the hood with a scholarship to Kansas, offers Caine a place to stay with him in the Midwest. And Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a beautiful, strong and sassy single mother who tries to teach her son how to become a man, is also wise enough to teach Caine how to be a man.
When Ronnie catches Caine showing her son how to hold a gun, she gives Caine a lecture on the true definition of manhood, something Caine could have used much earlier from his dead mother. Ronnie is so engaged and present in the moment that you start to get the feeling that if there were more Ronnies in the hood/world, it would be a decent place to live.
Animated and expressive with Caine, she acts as a representation of the sisters left behind, those women whose men have died all around them. The energetic gesturing and strident tone she employs when she speaks to Caine is a sharp contrast to the muted stillness she expresses when she visits Pernell (Glenn Plummer), her former boyfriend and son’s father, in prison. In what might be one of the best scenes of Pinkett Smith’s career, she communicates with her eyes. Those eyes rage, fume at the man behind the Plexiglas barrier. They tell, they make him feel, her disappointment. But they also tell Pernell – and the audience – something more. They tell her need to be strong, to resist the urge to collapse under the weight of her personal struggle. Ronnie, and the nameless, countless women in the real world who are so much like her, should be able to cry, to be vulnerable, to seek the support of a partner in a world where boys like her own son so infrequently reach old age. But the man who made that son with her will never even be able to hold her hand, much less hold her up, ever again.
In that moment, Caine witnesses Purnell’s silent contrition, and Ronnie expresses her inability to accept his apology without melting into a heap of fluttering helplessness. She knows no man, not even the one she loved enough to make a life with, will heroically rescue her from her struggle, so she has to remain strong, invulnerable, searing in her non-verbal response to him. They drop the phones that they never really spoke into, and Caine is the one to pick up the device these young people now require to talk to each other.
Caine is the one to sit and speak to the brother behind bars. Ronnie has asked Caine to move to Atlanta with her to start a new life. Caine gets permission from this man who has become his mentor, whose love for Ronnie is obvious and deep and constant. Purnell tells Caine that yes, he can enter a committed relationship with Ronnie, partner with her and father his son. He gives Caine permission to be the man he himself will never be able to be.
On the day Caine is packing up with Ronnie to move to Atlanta, his past catches up with him.
In one of the most agonizing sequences in American film, the audience waits with bated breath as the last seconds of Menace tick away.
Hearts stopped back in 1993, as people in theatres all around the country leaned forward to find out who died, and who survived, the final drive-by of the film.
The Hughes Brothers directorial debut is a searing, stunning, viscerally vivid docu-drama of hood life in the hot desert sun. Where Boyz N the Hood and South Central are more poetic and lyrical, Menace II Society is a jittery juggernaut of misapplied male energy. As the iconic Hip Hop group Public Enemy once said about their music, “We are the CNN of the streets,” the same could be said for this film. It elevated the discourse around films of Black containment that began with John Singleton’s Boyz and included South Central, Juice, and Baby Boy.
On a budget of $2.5 million Menace II Society went on to gross $27.9 million. It debuted at Cannes Film Festival, won an Independent Spirit Award for best cinematography, and won the 1994 MTV Movie Award for Best Film. More important, it tore open our hearts, making audiences across racial and socio-economic lines care, maybe for the very first time, whether this Black boy lived or died.