In the cataclysmic opening scene of Menace II Society, a couple of L.A. homeboys—Caine (Tyrin Turner), a crucifix hanging from his neck, and O-Dog (Larenz Tate), his baby face draped with Rasta braids—saunter down the fluorescent aisle of a Korean grocery store. The air is thick with fear, pride, and violence. O-Dog, sensing he’s being watched (he’s right), starts tossing verbal firecrackers at the store’s mom-and-pop owners as the cashier yells at him to stop swigging from his oversize beer bottle. Thirty seconds later, the cashier lies dead of a gunshot wound, his young killer, O-Dog, laughing in triumph.
Any number of filmmakers could have staged a hair-trigger scene like this one in order to pry a gut response of fear and shock from the audience. What’s remarkable in Menace II Society are the conflicting ripples of empathy we’re made to feel for every character on screen. O-Dog, it’s clear, is a troublemaker eager for someone to try and knock the chip off his shoulder. Yet the cashier is a little too quick to oblige: Would a white person drinking beer in the store have received such a knee-jerk reprimand? As for Caine, he may resent the Koreans, but he’s dismayed by his friend’s arrogant recklessness. The scene is a witches’ brew of emotion, and as the cauldron boils over, we can see that both sides are reacting less to anything the other party is actually doing than to the complex web of hatred and suspicion they each have woven.
It takes something rare to stage a scene like this one—a maturity of insight. So it’s astonishing to learn that Menace II Society is the first film by the Hughes brothers (Allen and Albert), 21-year-old Detroit-born twins whose previous experience has been almost exclusively in rap videos. Let me say right now that the Hughes brothers are major filmmakers; their work evinces a visual dazzle and dark emotional resonance that owes more to the Martin Scorsese of Mean Streets than to the John Singleton of Boyz N the Hood. Menace II Society is bleak, brilliant, unsparing: a full-scale vision of the madness that is tearing up the black inner city. If the movie is sometimes hard to watch, it is even harder to shake off.
Set in and around the Watts district of L.A., Menace II Society develops as a series of vivid, documentary-like anecdotes, each one ending with a deathly fade to black. Caine, the wayward hero, grew up watching his father (Samuel L. Jackson, in an explosive cameo) blow people away in his own living room. You can sense that there’s something good in Caine, but unlike the benevolent hero of Boyz N the Hood, he in no way stands apart from the cycle of casual homicide that defines his homeboy buddies.
As Caine and his crew engage in a variety of felonies, their talk a hostile crossfire of profanity, you begin to hear the will to violence encoded in their very language. The film suggests that, far from just hating the white man, the new generation of young urban blacks have begun, in an almost systematized way, to hate one another. In this terminally selfish, no-future netherworld, trust and compassion don’t exist; to reveal a hint of sensitivity is to be like a woman (a ”bitch”) and therefore shunned. Menace II Society lays bare how the code of black machismo, now carried to the nth degree, has transformed a neighborhood like Watts into a culture of sociopaths.
The movie is studded with haunting moments: O-Dog dragging a blood-spattered Caine into the emergency room, the two of them later joking about who acted tougher; Caine going to prison to visit his hustler mentor (Glenn Plummer), who tearfully bequeaths him his girlfriend and young son; O-Dog, in a moment of obscenely matter-of-fact horror, playing a stolen surveillance-camera videotape of the Korean-grocery incident and whooping with pride at his home-movie snuff film. Menace II Society offers little way out of this hellish demimonde, and the Hughes brothers have staged a final scene that can only be called uncompromising. Still, the brutal honesty of their vision can serve as a cathartic wake-up call for the audience. The fact that a movie as accomplished and unblinking as this one could get made in the first place is, in a strange way, its one true sign of hope.