Classic Colored Cinema: Menace II Society’s Powerful Message

“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 going to happpen. Or when.” – Caine

This weekend marks the 27th anniversary of Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers remarkable 1993 directorial debut that takes us inside the vicious fatalism of the world inhabited by the film’s main character, Kaydee Caine Lawson.

From the very opening scene, where Caine and his best friend O-Dog stop into a Korean grocery store to buy some beer, the film pulsates with a nervous energy that’s both infectious and startling. At the outset, the drama wastes no time in inserting the viewer into a world where senseless violence and death permeate the atmosphere.

Once the Korean grocer makes a fatal mistake by looking at O-Dog with disdain and stating, I feel sorry for your mother, the resulting series of events set the stage for a piece of visual and cinematic storytelling that remains a masterpiece.

What should have been a simple trip to the store quickly explodes into two murders simply because, in their brief and tragic interaction, the participants cant summon the empathy to see one another as human beings. And the resulting carnage sets the stage for a maddening examination of what the Caines of the world have to navigate at such a young age, and the warped values they unknowingly digest that push and box them into a marginalized existence.

In the inner-city Los Angeles world inhabited by Caine and those he orbits around, conflict, rage, retribution, and tragedy are omnipresent.

And the brutal tentacles of that environment – whether directly or indirectly, whether one is gifted, kind-hearted and driven to escape towards a better life – are inescapable in some shapes and forms.

The odds are stacked against Caine from the outset. At a very early age, he witnesses his father, a local gangster and drug dealer, killing someone in his home because of a dispute over money. His father is ultimately murdered when he’s ten, and his mother dies from a heroin overdose.

But his world is not filled entirely with doom, gloom, and negative influences.

His grandparents try to steer him in a positive direction, as does Mr. Butler, his friend Sharif’s father, along with Sharif himself, a former gangbanger whose outlook has changed since his immersion into the Nation of Islam. Stacy, the talented high school football player whos on his way to the University of Kansas via an athletic scholarship, also implores Caine to come along with him in order to escape the path that he’s on.

And then there’s Ronnie and her son, who he loves dearly, but struggles with the fact that she was once the girlfriend of Pernell, his mentor in the street game whos now incarcerated for the rest of his life.

It’s worth pondering how Caine would have turned out had his parents not been immersed in the drug game and street life, had he been nourished by a different societal ecosystem that allowed him to take full advantage of his intelligence, wit, charm and talents.

One of the many tragedies of the story layered across his parents’ death, nearly being murdered alongside his cousin Harold, O-Dog’s blood lust, the murders he commits in seeking vengeance for his cousin’s death, and ultimately his own murder alongside Sharif’s, is that he’s never fully able to realize that alternatives exist for him.

When he tries to start anew by making the decision to move with Ronnie and her son to Atlanta, it’s too late. He can’t outrun his past. The narrow walls of his existence close in on him.

Caine is a metaphor for all of our struggling youth in inner city America. And in the gripping scenes where he talks to Pernell in prison, and with Mr. Butler, who implores him to make some changes so he can survive, lies the Hughes Brothers’ vehement message to all of the boys who are forced to be men despite being ill-equipped to do so, in a larger society that views them as little more than animals.

It’s amazing to think that the directors were merely 21 years old when Menace II Society was finished, just young men themselves weaving this heartbreaking, splendid tale in the hopes that people could get an intimate sense of the senseless carnage, of the lives being tossed away, at the supreme loss of potential taking place every day, all over America’s urban landscape.

Propelling the narrative, along with their deft cinematography and homages toward Martin Scorcese’s classic gangster film Goodfellas were the arresting performances turned in by Tyrin Turner as Caine, Larenz Tate as O-Dog, Samuel L. Jackson as Tat, Clifton Powell as Chauncey, Charles S. Dutton as Mr. Butler, Jada Pinkett as Ronnie, Vonte Sweet as Sharif, and Bill Duke as the police detective, among others.

And the music laced underneath brought out an extra layer of authenticity, with the likes of N.W.A.’s Dopeman, Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up, Zapp’s Computer Love and Jerry Butler’s Only The Strong Survive, among others, adding a deeper nuance and emotional connectivity.

And the actual soundtrack, which those previously mentioned classics didn’t actually appear on, was certified platinum and anchored by MC Eiht’s dope summation of Caine’s life with the song Streiht Up Menace.

Almost three decades later, Menace II Society remains as important today as the day it was released.

Not only has it stood the test of time as a truthful and heartfelt depiction, but it also continues to haunt us as we confront some of the most uncomfortable truths about America’s urban ills. And it still makes us cry as we continue to mourn the loss of Sharif’s, Cousin Harold’s and Caine’s every day.