Menace II Society, the explosive debut of the Hughes Brothers, is not a bad film by any means – the cinematography is striking, the use of editing memorable, and there are some strong performances. It’s not subtle, but it captures an anger that was clearly felt at the time, and remains all too relevant.
The problem comes from the overly earnest execution. There’s very little subtext, everything is right there on the surface. The performances are also generally very broad, with little nuance or shading, making it all feel a little showy, a little superficial. That being said, there is also an undeniable ferocity to the film and a tangible sense of righteous anger behind every line that makes it very hard to dismiss out of hand.
While Tyrin Turner’s central performance is a little too passive to really stick in the memory, I think this is the point. He is given multiple opportunities to escape the cyclical life of violence he is engaged in, not least through his relationship with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett) and her young son, but the apathy surrounding them is infectious. Turner suffers from being surrounded by much stronger performances – Larenz Tate is incredible as the cocksure, sociopathic O-Dog – essentially a kid, whose casual attitude to extreme violence, played off as badass, is really disturbing. The Hughes brothers don’t let the audience off the hook by having any of the other characters condemn his actions, even as he does some truly abhorrent stuff.
So ingrained is the idea that black lives are worthless, that any attempts to escape their fate is futile, that the young black characters of this film have a disregard for their own lives or those around them. This is chillingly demonstrated in the opening scene, where O-Dog kills a Korean shopkeeper, or the scene where Kaydee’s father (Samuel L Jackson in a pre-fame role) callously shoots an acquaintance to death, both over a mild insult. An obvious comparison might be to something like Boyz N The Hood, but this is infinitely more nihilistic. There’s no sentimentality here, and the casual violence is never glorified, more reminiscent of Goodfellas than anything (The scene with the Korean couple and Tommy shooting Spider are almost mirror images of each other).
Vonte Sweet gives the film’s best performance as the anti-violence, anti-drugs Muslim convert, a role that could easily have been very one note, but Sweet manages to find the real person beneath the character, and makes his character likeable without being too preachy. Bill Duke also makes an impression in his brief appearance as a detective. The Hughes brothers are deferential to this icon of black cinema, giving him an enigmatic entrance and some slick dialogue, and in return Duke elevates what could have been a fairly unmemorable scene into one of the coolest moments of the film. There are parallels to be drawn between this and Duke’s own Deep Cover, especially in the way the directors and actors don’t hold back in their emotional intensity.
I went into Menace II Society with very little preconceptions, and while some elements didn’t work for me, you can’t deny the passion and vitality that infuse every scene. This is an intensely personal project, and this hides a multitude of sins. It’s why their later less personal films like From Hell and The Book Of Eli ultimately came up short. Menace II Society is a bold statement of intent from the brothers, and served as a dry run for their even more potent Dead Presidents, which only reinforces their style, but frame the social issues within the context of a heist film, which, for my money, makes for a more assured film.
Audio commentaries from 1993 featuring directors Albert and Allen Hughes; Gangsta Vision, a 2009 featurette on the making of the film; Two new conversations between Albert Hughes, screenwriter Tyger Williams, and film critic Elvis Mitchell, and Allen Hughes, Bill Duke and Mitchell (again); Interview from 1993 with the directors; and an essay by critic Craig D Lindsey.