“Ain’t That Hard”: The Teenage Wasteland of 'Menace II Society'
With their debut, now making a return appearance via the Criterion Collection, the Hughes Brothers created a potent mix of queasy thrills and haunting despair
Directors Allen and Albert Hughes and their screenwriting partner Tyger Williams started to worry when they first heard about John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood. “The dream is over,” Albert recalls thinking in a 2021 conversation with Williams and Elvis Mitchell included on the new Criterion Collection edition of Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers’ 1993 directorial debut. They were already deep at work on Menace when Singleton’s film hit theaters in the summer of 1991, earning praise for the realism with which it depicted life in South Central L.A. “Then we watched the movie,” Hughes continues, “and were like ‘We ain’t got nothing to worry about here.’ That’s a different thing. Ours is nihilistic. That’s hopeful.”
Hughes isn’t wrong, but the term “nihilism” only hazily describes Menace II Society. Yes, it’s filled with nihilistic characters and grim scenarios, depicting 1990s Watts as a hopeless place in which base instincts and a will to survive override moral impulses. But the film also comes from a place of deep concern. Unlike Boyz N the Hood, it doesn’t reserve the possibility of a happy ending for some of its characters. None of the film’s leads get out alive or, at best, unscarred. But beneath the random acts of bloodshed and unrelenting bleakness, there’s a wish the world would change.
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That’s not the same as a hope that it will, however. If Boyz N the Hood is the contemporary equivalent of a golden age Hollywood melodrama, Menace II Society is akin to a classic Warner Bros. gangster film, like the one the film’s protagonist, recent high school grad/small-time drug dealer “Caine” Lawson (Tyrin Turner) watches while recuperating from a gunshot wound. The Hugheses pack the film with queasily thrilling violence committed by tough-talking, amoral men, but it’s animated by weary fatalism and a slow-simmering anger at a world that grinds up promise and turns out desperation and crime.
In a flashback accompanied, like much of the film, by Caine’s puzzled voiceover, we witness Caine as he grows up watching his father (Samuel L. Jackson, in a chilling cameo) deal drugs and his mother (Khandi Alexander) take drugs. When his father kills a man who owes him money and mocks the idea of repaying it, Caine sees that the wrath of God doesn’t come crashing down in punishment. Recalling his father’s death in a drug deal gone bad and his mother’s overdose, Caine has come to think of their ends as inevitabilities. No wonder, when asked if he wants to live or die, Caine doesn’t have an immediate answer. To him it doesn’t even feel like he has a say in the matter, and nothing around him suggests otherwise.
If a movie teaches you how to watch it in its opening moments, Menace II Society instructs viewers to stay on edge and throw out assumptions. In the first scene, Caine and his younger friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) enter a corner store to buy some liquor. They win viewers’ sympathies when the the store’s owners eye them suspiciously and follow them around in a none-too-subtle bit of racial profiling. They’re underage, sure, but do they deserve this? Then, provoked by an insulting remark, O-Dog shoots the man behind the counter. Then he shoots him again and again (and again) before forcing the man’s wife to retrieve the surveillance video. Then O-Dog kills her, too. Then he empties his first victim’s pockets and even his socks to find the big bills he knows will be hidden there. (That the victims are both Asian further complicates the scene.) Caine looks on in horror and then flees, but otherwise does nothing to change his life, including putting any distance between himself and O-Dog.
Soon, there’s not only no distance separating them—there’s little to distinguish the two at all, no matter how pained Caine sounds in narration. Incensed by the murder of a friend—depicted in grisly detail that includes shots of the perpetrator wiping blood from the the inside of the windshield and of the dying victim twitching in the street—Caine agrees to accompany O-Dog on a mission to kill the killers. Sensing his hesitation, O-Dog downplays the task, insisting “Shit ain’t that hard.” The film backs him up: Pull the trigger and you’ve become a killer. It’s as simple as that. There might be consequences. There might not be. Either way, the universe doesn’t really care. If Caine, unlike O-Dog, carries some guilt after the fact, maybe that’s just his problem.
The film does offer glimpses of a way out. Caine has a chance to relocate to Kansas with a friend leaving Watts on an athletic scholarship. Another friend, Sharif (Vonte Sweet, in role that at one point belonged to Tupac Shakur), has taken solace and found a narrower path via the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Sharif’s father (Charles S. Dutton), a teacher, expresses genuine concern but has little to offer beyond reminding Caine that the odds are stacked against a Black man in America. Caine ultimately decides to start over in Atlanta with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith), the woman Caine’s drug-dealing mentor Pernell (Glenn Plummer)—the closest he’s had to a father figure—left behind when he went to prison. But by then his fate has already been sealed, and Menace II Society hasn’t really attempted to make much of a case that he deserves to escape anyway. The Hughes Brothers aren’t interested in telling a story of redemption. They want to tell it how they see it.
“Fifty percent of this is from-the-heart stories of people we know. The other is from interviews,” Allen Hughes told The New York Times at the time, and one of the film’s audio commentary tracks reveals that many of the details (like that bit with the shop owner’s socks) come from their research. As critic Craig D. Lindsey notes in his booklet essay, Albert Hughes likes to say he and his brother made Menace II Society for white people, showing the audience hard truths Hollywood preferred to whitewash. Black viewers embraced the movie, but they didn’t have to be told what was going on. What audiences saw, smuggled in the trojan horse of a violent drama, was a depiction of an abandoned place that offered neither solace nor escape. It's easy to ignore inner city violence and the societal conditions that make it inevitable, particularly when you live far away on the other side of town. News images of crimes flicker by and the stories fade away. But Menace II Society sears and demands that you look.
Great movie. Can sometimes feel a little sloppy in its narrative momentum, and the lead performance can sometimes be a little iffy, but these issues really just pale in comparison to the power of its merciless tone and amazing visuals. I was not surprised that Criterion wanted this to be one of their first 4K discs, it’s really a feast for the eyes and scenes go out of their way to just use striking lighting that has more in common with Argento than any real, grounded Hollywood movies.
This is why movies are such a potent drug. Despite making frequent trips to L.A. as I grew up (I was born there but my family moved to Utah when I was six), neighborhoods like Compton and Watts were invisible to me, no-go zones my father and other relatives mentioned only in vague terms. The big three films that started to open my eyes, all of which I saw in theaters from the relative safety of Salt Lake City, were DO THE RIGHT THING, BOYZ N THE HOOD, and MENACE II SOCIETY. I believe Albert Hughes when he says MENACE II SOCIETY was made for white people because it made searingly clear to me, moreso than those two earlier films, how badly white society had stacked the deck against people of color. It is shocking in a necessary way, and it forces you to ask if you would react any differently to the same conditions.