Last Friday night, The Virginia Film Festival offered the chance to catch what can only be described as a bona fide classic. Emerging as a tense and raw debut from the impossibly young Hughes brothers, 1993’s Menace II Society acts not only as cautionary tale, but a transfixing immersion into the darkest parts of Watts, Los Angeles in the early 90s. To new viewers, unaware of the film’s raw depiction of street life, it is also offers a vivid time capsule of early-90’s black culture and film making — and the last few moments before the internet and cellphone age would eventually take over. If tales like Do The Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood opened the door for black filmmakers searching for social cognition, Menace blows the door off.
The film primarily chronicles crimes and tribulations of Caine (Tyrin Turner), a contemplative 18-year-old unsure of what path to follow, and his younger cousin, O-Dog (Lorenz Tate), a violent sociopath set on continuing his vicious and destructive ways. As Caine sums it up, O-Dog is America’s worst nightmare; he’s young, black, and “doesn’t give a fuck.”
The memorably-intense opening scene perfectly encapsulates Caine and O-Dog as characters, as they attempt to purchase beer before being prompted to “buy quickly and leave” by the Korean couple running the store. Things escalate quickly: Feeling prejudiced and disrespected, O-Dog pulls a gun, murdering the couple without much hesitation and stealing the security tape. While the distinction between the two teenagers is drawn here, the lines become muddled as Caine further succumbs to the Stockholm syndrome through the dangerous environment around him.
Caine’s life becomes rather sorted, as he’s shot, caught carjacking, commits murder, and gets a girl pregnant. As the escalating crime spree continues (and trouble mounts), Caine quickly finds that his time is dwindling — and that leaving the hood may be his only escape. The film builds to a tense climax, which still remains a memorable moment in cinema.
The reaction to Menace would be felt that year, considered not only shocking, but hailed as one of the year’s best. The film would eventually be spoofed by The Wayans Brothers in their 1996 hit comedy, Don’t Be a Menace To South Central…, arguably using Menace as the film’s biggest catalyst. The film also featured the likes of Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, Clifton Powell, and Bill Duke.
After the showing, VAFF advisory board member Jason George was on hand to an intimate discussion, moderated with co-director Allen Hughes and reflecting on this important film 25 years later.
“We had the idea when we were fifteen, and we made it when we were twenty,” Allen said. “We thought that was normal.”
Extraordinarily, the film was in development during the brother’s late-teens and released by the time they were 21. After the acclaim of Menace, Hughes asserts that he was relieved that the follow-up Dead Presidents was mixed in critical response. Perhaps for the still-young directors, that was the de-escalation they needed for their careers.
The two twin brothers cut their teeth directing music videos for hip-hop artists like NWA, The Digital Underground, and Tupac Shakur. The film’s production was not without its problems: Shakur was hired and quickly let go, causing trouble on set, and demanding a bigger part while acting out. Hughes reflected that Shalur would more than likely have died earlier if social media was around, since he was known to start beefs frequently and without concern. Shakur’s untimely fate would be mirrored in 1996, when he was violently gunned down following an altercation.
“Music videos at the time, for us, were just a stepping stone to cinema”, Hughes notes. The rise of violent hip-hop created an interest, and was perfect timing as Hughes reflected. “At the time hip-hop was massive, Yo! MTV Raps had two shows, an hour-show and a daily half-hour show. A lot of our peers at the time, their aspirations were just music videos at the time, and ours were like, ‘Let’s use this to get to this.’”
With his friend and co-writer Tyger Williams, Hughes spent a year devising the film’s story until his brother, Albert, read the script and jumped on board. Albert even lended the story’s videotape idea.
“Once I knew we had something special, I gave it to everyone I met in the industry,” Albert said. The plan was a quick and resounding success.
Hughes remembers finally securing the interest of New Line Cinema for their project. “Funny little thing happened,” he said. “When we sold it, it was the perfect climate to sell it. Juice had come out, and New Jack City. They were debatable, but they came out. It was the era of black cinema, and it wasn’t black exploitation like from the 70s.”
The timing of the signing also preceded the L.A. Riots by a mere three weeks. For a period, the production was frozen, and needed a newfound sensitivity to the subject matter that was being broadcasted on daily news. While Hughes didn’t name names, he recounts that a few black “elder-statesmen” of directors called, warning the studios that if they made the movie they’d “have blood on their hands.” Two weeks of being shut down caused the filmmakers to recollect. Hughes continued, “It gave us time be a little more responsible, ‘cause if you thought that was edgy, or whatever you’d call that, it was way more before. So it was a blessing.”
Hughes took a moment to answer questions from the audience, and spoke about how his own mother was big inspiration for the strong females he has put on screen.
Menace still remains as much of a visceral experience today as when it debuted 25 years ago. The film’s prevalent violence is still shocking and moving, but neither romanticized nor glamorized. Menace offers plenty of relevant lessons to be gleamed, and is a stylistically-smart film even today. The film cunningly explores the ebbs and flows of a modern day nightmare, showcasing what young filmmakers are capable of.