“My grandpa asked me once if I care if I lived or died. Yeah I do. And now it’s too late.” I am white. I have also often accused by more than a few people of having so much of a reverence for black community and culture that I really wanted to be black. Their church services certainly seem to be more entertaining, and in certain situations who wouldn’t want to hang with Bird and Dizzy in the 40’s, Marvin Gaye and a couple of football players in the seventies and perhaps even a couple of days with the Black Panthers excluding of course that day where Fred Hampton and crew got blown away by Richard Daley and the Chicago Swat Team. I would even dig hanging out with Eddie Murphy at Bubble Hill in that Black Pack thing. There have been many, many singers, musicians, athletes and even a few movies that made me at times want to be Black. Menace II Society was not one of them. You could take the robe off of a Klan Grand Wizard, make him watch Menace and even he would come out crying about the depressing as hell impossibilities of being a young Black man in the ghetto.
Which isn’t necessarily the case for all recent pieces of ghetto related culture. NWA and any number of Gangsta rappers and their cool videos have given living in the ghetto the equivalence of the gunfire capers of the Old West, or the anything goes of Capone country in‘20s Chicago. Caine (Tyrin Turner) even watches Jimmy Cagney movies in the Hospital after nearly being shot dead in a car jacking, much like Tupac Shakur did in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice. In Menace II Society the guys usually prefer to watch dubs of their own convenience store murder scenes. The movie hangs out a likable character (well sort of), makes us think for a moment that he could have a chance, and then slams the door right in our face by showing us the utterly fated certainty of his downfall. It makes the Hood seem worse than Vietnam.
Caine lives with his Grandparents in Watts. His dad (Sam Jackson in another great thirty second appearance) sold drugs and used to beat his wife after she sampled too much of his product. They are both dead by the time he graduates from high school. In this world everybody is either going to or coming back from jail. In an early scene, Sam Jackson tosses a get together for a pal returning from a five year sentence and winds up blowing the guy away at his own party.
Caine is friends with a guy named O-Dog (Larenz Tate). Here is his description of his best friend. “Now O-Dog was the craziest nigger alive. America’s nightmare. Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.” In the movies memorable first scene they enter a Korean convenience store for a couple of 40’s of Malt Liquor. The mom and pop store owner’s infuriate O-Dog by watching his every move like he’s going to rob the store. “[They] always think we’re gonna be stealing something” he complains self righteously moments before angrily killing the couple and looting the store. Caine, a drug seller but not all bad, looks in after his incarcerated brother’s wife and his nephew from time to time. As a high school graduation present he gets shot and nearly killed in a car jacking, and this is all in the first twenty minutes or so.
Menace II Society sets up life in the Hood as just one long endless pattern of Black Males growing up without their fathers, reproducing and following their elders path straight to jail or an early grave. One drive by shooting after another drawing endless retaliations. The film is one chillingly authentic scene after another as Caine shows his five year old nephew his gun, expertly mixes drugs, gets beaten by cops, dumped in the wrong side of the DMZ, and even jacks a car through a fast food drive thru. There are a few good role models around, but as Caine says it goes in one ear and out the other. The hip hop soul soundtrack is good as can be expected, and Larenz Tate is perhaps the most psychotically scary out of control presence in the modern cinema, but in the end it’s more of a war movie than Saving Private Ryan ever was.