O-Dog: Hey, man, who the fuck gonna be old out there at twelve o’clock at night, bitch? Shit, nigga, I’ll smoke anybody, nigga. I just don’t give a fuck. Shit. I’m gonna hit this shit, nigger.
Caine: Look, all right, not me, all right? I’m not killing no kids.
O-Dog: Hey, you know what, nigger? You acting like a little bitch right now. You acting real paranoid and shit. Now, these motherfuckers smoked your goddam cousin in front of you, nigga! Blew his head off in front of your face, and you ain’t gonna do shit? You acting like a little bitch right now, nigga. Man, fuck that. I ain’t letting that shit ride. We gonna go in and smoke all these motherfuckers. I don’t care who the fuck out there. Goddamn it, is you down, nigger?
A-Wax: Man, both of y’all shut the fuck up. Both of y’all acting like some motherfucking bitches. Shit. Scared to peel these punk-ass nigga’s cap. Now, give me my motherfucking joint, nigga.
– Menace II Society
Aw man, goddamn, all hell broke loose
You killed my cousin back in ’94, fuck your truce
Now crawl your head in that noose, you’ll wind up dead in the news
– “m.A.A.d City” from good kid m.A.A.d city
2014 was a year filled with racial conflict. In case you hadn’t noticed. Watching Menace II Society on the heels of that fraught year only makes it seem more topical. The issues tackled head on by the film are still very much present today. This breathes extra life into a movie as thematically driven as Menace II Society. The film was directed by the Hughes Brothers, whose later filmography leaves a lot to be desired. None of that matters with Menace II Society. Even though keens eyes will spot problems with the film, the raw and personal nature of the themes almost completely outweighs the few chinks in the film’s armour.
Menace II Society opens with the main character, Caine (played by Tyrin Turner) and his friend, O-Dog (played by Larenz Tate), walk into a corner store to buy beer. O-Dog immediately starts snapping at the elderly Asian lady in the store, who seems to be following the pair around under the guise of cleaning. “They always think we’re trying to steal shit.” O-Dog gets angrier and angrier. But he pays for the beer and goes to leave. Then the man behind the counter quietly says he feels sorry for O-Dog’s mother. O-Dog snaps and whips out a revolver, shooting both of the store’s proprietors and grabbing the tape from the security camera. This sets off the rambling series of events and scenes that comprise the film.
Went into the store just to get a beer. Came out an accessory to murder and armed robbery. It’s funny like that in the hood sometimes. You never knew what was gonna happen, or when. After that I knew it was gonna be a long summer.
The movie is basically an assemblage of vignettes documenting Caine’s life, and life in the hood in general. We get to see Caine growing up, albeit briefly, in a scene that also features a cameo from Samuel L. Jackson. Excluding that scene, most everything in the movie takes place after the opening robbery. The movie has a large cast of characters. Other than O-Dog and Caine there’s a newly converted Muslim named Sharif (played by Vonte Sweet) who routinely takes shit from the other characters about his beliefs. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Ronnie, the girlfriend of the imprisoned Pernell (Glen Plummer). Pernell helped school Caine in the ins-and-outs of life in the Watts ghetto. Caine tries to repay him by looking after Ronnie and her son. Rapper MC Eiht plays A-Wax, an older gangster. And that’s really only scratching the surface of a collection of characters that occasionally push the film into ensemble territory. Or at least it would if it weren’t for the first person narration and point-of-view that Caine provides.
As the movie goes along, Caine is basically given more and more methods of “escape.” It seems that he’s constantly coming into contact with people who recognize he has potential and a good nature and offer him pleas and opportunities. But Caine also slips more and more into the dangerous lifestyle around him. After he and his cousin Harold (played by Saafir) are jacked by a black van filled with gun-toting, ski-mask wearing gangsters, Caine winds up shot and Harold ends up dead. Caine decides he needs to get revenge.
I seen lotsa people killed before, but I ain’t never done it myself. I mean, I never had a reason to. But when they killed my cousin, I knew I was gonna kill them.
Caine gets his revenge when he, O-Dog, and A-Wax run up on a pair of guys trying to order food. They ruthlessly blast them and take off. Caine kills his first person.
I thought killing those fools would make me feel good, but it really didn’t make me feel anything. I just knew that I could kill somebody, and if I had to, I could do it again.
The rest of the movie just unfolds with a series of events and their eventual fallout. It’s not driven by any particular plot or overriding goal or anything like that. The script instead strives for a sort of pseudo-realism, leaning into an aimless, docu-vignette style. Which is interesting, because some of the best parts of the movie come from the interesting presentational stylization, chiefly the editing and the sound design.
The editing is clearly pretty attention-grabbing. Right off the bat, immediately following the cold opening, editor Christopher Koefoed cuts in some footage of the 1965 Watts Riots. The Watts Riots were a six-day marathon of violent riots that killed 34 people and injured over a thousand. The riots started with an arrest that spiralled out of control. Rumours circulated about the actions of the police, sparking the accumulated rage that unofficial segregation and police discrimination had been brewing. The black and white clips of the Riots are brought to life by new sound. The cuts during this scene are timed to a visceral whooshing that travels from one channel to another. It’s pretty striking.
Now O-Dog was the craziest nigga alive. America’s nightmare. Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.
The other interesting cluster of edits comes at the end of the film. Significant snippets of the whole film play interspersed with black. It’s a substantive scene; essentially Caine flashing back to the choices he’s made throughout his life.
The sound design on the movie is really wonderful. It seems like it might be the digital effects that Harry Cohen created that I’m noticing (Cohen also worked on Django Unchained and Prometheus) but that’s basically guesswork. No matter who was responsible, the sound design is effective. There’s an interesting cherry picking of city sounds used to add dramatic sound effects to important moments. Things like sirens and trains acting as Hitchcockian highlights to certain moments. It’s not rocket science, but it is effective, adding a layer to important scenes without going too overboard into fantastical territory.
My father sold dope and my mother was a heroin addict. Moms and Pops were real popular in the neighborhood. They would always be giving parties for friends of theirs who just got out of jail or was on their way to jail. They only got married ’cause I was born. My pop sometimes worked as an electrician or a cab driver or a plumber, but his main job was selling drugs. Sometimes Mom would use ‘em all up before he could even sell ‘em. Then he’d have to beat her up. Growing up with parents like that, I heard a lot and I saw a lot. I caught on to the criminal life real quick. Instead of keeping me out of trouble, they turned me on to it.
Themes of generational influence run throughout the film. We get to see a nightmarish peak into the early life of Caine. His mum twitches and grovels for her fix. His dad sits wreathed in purple light playing cards. Caine sneaks outside and a young Pernell sits him on his lap and offers him beer and lets him play with his gun. Then Caine gets ushered back in time to see his dad snap and empty his gun into one of the guys he’s playing cards with.
We get to see a few of these key moments play out again, but with Pernell’s son in Caine’s shoes. At some points Caine does his best to make sure this young impressionable boy doesn’t learn the same lessons he does, but at other times Caine takes care to teach this boy the same sort of things Pernell taught him. When O-Dog offers the kid a drink, Caine knocks the bottle from his hand. But when Caine and the kid are playing video games, Caine sits the boy on his lap and shows him how to shoot. Caine doesn’t kill anyone where the kid can see, but he does pistol whip Chauncey (played by Clifton Powell) half-to-death in a nightmarish scene (involving a cool shot showing you multiple rooms of the house). Maybe the sum of those scenes is less than what Caine experienced, maybe that’s a hint of optimism for the future of the kid. It’s hard to know, especially given the child’s role in the film’s finale.
Grandpapa: Now what I want to talk to you two about is the trouble that you’ve been getting into. Boys, the Lord didn’t put you here to be shooting and killing each other. It’s right there in the Bible, Exodus 20:13: ‘”Thou shall not kill.’
Caine: Grandpa, I ain’t never killed nobody.
Grandpapa: Oh, I doubt that. And Kevin, I’ve heard stories about you.
O-Dog: Sir, I don’t think God really cares too much about us, or he wouldn’t have put us here. I mean, look where we stay at. It’s all fucked – It’s messed up around here.
Caine: My grandpops was always coming at us with that religion, and every time it would go in one ear and out the other.
Grandpapa: Caine, do you care whether you live or die?
Caine: I don’t know.
One of the other things I noticed about Menace II Society doesn’t have anything to do with the text at hand, but rather the light it shines on Kendrick Lamar’s lauded concept album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Now obviously both pieces of art deal with similar themes of gang life and youth, but there are a few obvious parallels. Ones that go beyond the cousin similarity I pointed out at the beginning of the article. In fact some research showed that Lamar has actually interviewed Tyrin Turner about starring in this movie. The most damning clue watching it had to be the MC Eiht song that plays over the credits. Kendrick Lamar actually has Eiht guest on his album, saying the same piece of dialogue to open the second half of the song “m.A.A.d. City.” “Wake your punk ass up!”
Menace II Society is one of those pieces of art that’s about something significant and personal enough that it’s hard to talk about objectively. It might occasionally be a little sprawling and some of the scenes might feel a little half-baked, but those are small complaints to levy at a generally excellent movie. And they’re complaints that are almost all overridden by the messages at play.
After stomping on Ilena’s cousin like that, I knew I was gonna have to deal with that fool someday. Damn! I never thought he’d come back like this, blasting. Like I said, it was funny like that in the hood sometimes. I mean you never knew what was gonna happen or when. I’ve done too much to turn back, and I’ve done too much to go on. I guess in the end it all catches up with you. My grandpa asked me one time if I care whether I live or die. Yeah, I do. Now it’s too late.