The dark coming-of-age classic Menace II Society hit theaters in the late spring/early summer of 1993 like a culture bomb.
The gritty story of 18-year old Watts native Caine (Tyrin Turner) was both familiar and shocking to moviegoers; here was a movie that somehow managed to convey the universal naïveté and recklessness of youth but also the specific dangers of growing up in a violent environment. The film was the brainchild of two ambitious brothers who would go on to sit amongst the most distinct filmmakers of their generation.
Allen and Albert Hughes were only 21-year olds when they made their directorial debut with 1993s evocative Menace II Society. A look at the life of a young Black male growing up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the movie was one of the most critically-acclaimed Black films of the early 90s; and a standard-bearer for then-popular "hood movies" that had begun to proliferate to theaters post-Boyz N The Hood. Menace... is often compared to Boyz... for obvious reasons: both feature "growin' up in the hood" narratives set in early 90s L.A.; both feature noteworthy Hip-Hop stars in prominent roles; both arrived against the backdrop of racial unrest in Cali - Boyz... hit theaters just two months after the Rodney King beating; while Menace... started shooting just after the 1992 L.A. riots. The parallel relevance of the two movies feels obvious.
But in terms of storytelling and style, Menace II Society has always been more like Martin Scorsese's 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas.
In Kaydee "Caine" Lawson, the Hughes brothers crafted a Black teenage antihero a la Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Hill is bred into a life of crime at a relative early age, nudged towards criminality by both poverty and environment. His working class family earns a meager living, so teenaged Henry becomes infatuated with the wiseguys down the street. In Menace..., little Kaydee sees drugs and violence around him regularly; he even witnesses his father murder a man in their living room during a card game. Both protagonists grow up with an almost cavalier attitude towards hustling and killing, though the strains of their lifestyles eventually push them near a breaking point.
The Hughes Brothers were transplants to Pomona, CA from Detroit and they'd developed the movie bug early. Scorsese flicks were a major influence on the teenage Allen and Albert, as they recreated scenes from movies like Goodfellas in their mother's house. In high school they moved to the mostly-white L.A. suburb of Claremont. By their early 20s, the burgeoning filmmakers were like creative sponges, soaking up cinematic and cultural influences.
"1993 was the last era of a lot of things, particularly in LA," Allen Hughes told DAZED in 2013. "The whole pop culture scene was really bubbling, and probably in its heyday, in ‘93. Racial tensions were geeked out that year, too, in Los Angeles."
In Larenz Tate's O-Dog, moviegoers got what Caine's narration describes as "America's nightmare: young, Black, and didn't give a fuck."
Joe Pesci won an Oscar for the similarly-unhinged Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, a whirling dervish of terrifying rage and insecurity. Tommy seemed to murder people for even the slightest infraction; from a young bartender firing back after Tommy insults him to an elder wiseguy making cracks during drinks. Tate's performance as O-Dog is as impressive a turn; perhaps even moreso when one considers Tate's youth at the time; he was only 16 when he landed the role. O-Dog kills almost entirely on impulse; callously murdering a Korean couple that owns a neighborhood store; shooting a crack addict after he propositions him for rock money. O-Dog is a teen sociopath, and Tate was coming from a world of family sitcoms. He told "The Breakfast Club" in 2016 that he was eager to break away from any boy-next-door image.
"I did a show with the late Red Foxx and Della Reese, called The Royal Family, so I had this kind of cookie-cutter look and I wanted to get away from that completely,” Tate shared. Having grown up on the West Side of Chicago, Tate knew he had experiences he could draw from.
“I wanted to just make it as authentic as I possibly could, based off the things that I had seen.”
The Hughes' approach to storytelling and their cinematic flourishes throughout Menace II Society evoke directors like Scorsese and Lee. The main narration from Caine is another choice that feels reminiscent of Goodfellas, dropping the viewer, not only into the world they're depicting, but into the direct perspective of the main character. It makes the experience more visceral and immediate; while also humanizing a not-always-sympathetic character. The script was written by 24-year old Tyger Williams, but the Hughes had long carried inspiration for telling this type of story about this kind of character.
"This movie has been in our heads since we were 15: how kids become what they become, how the environment affects them," Allen Hughes told the New York Times in 1993 after the film drew raves. "Fifty percent of this is from-the-heart stories of people we know. The other is from interviews."
As A-Wax, MC Eiht gives an unfussy, surprisingly effective performance as an older gangbanger who serves as elder statesmen to his teenage compatriots. A-Wax serves in the Jimmy Conway role that Bobby DeNiro delivers in Goodfellas. DeNiro's Jimmy is lovable and something of a mentor, but pushes his younger cohorts into all the wrong directions. By the time they're all grown up, Jimmy is just another one of the guys, getting long in the tooth but still getting in on the action.
It says something about a lifestyle when you're one of the "old guys" before you even hit 30.
Of course, there obvious distinctions to be made between Menace... and ...Fellas. The inexperienced Hughes Brothers haven't yet fully mastered their craft (later films like Dead Presidents and From Hell would show the brothers' growth by leaps and bounds), and it's an obviously low-budget affair. This inexpensive Black film didn't get the sort of lofty budget a prestige production from a Martin Scorsese would have gotten even three decades ago.
But at a time when Black cinema is suddenly Hollywood viable again, it's interesting to look at the history of Black antiheroes onscreen. It says a lot about American culture that white criminality and corruption can be fodder for so many cinematic classics without being asked to represent whiteness wholesale; while so many Black films are tasked with conveying "the Black experience" in a way that teaches us something about that experience. White films about white bad guys are supposedly meant to tell us something about the human condition; Black films about Black bad guys are just supposed to tell us something about Black people. That's one of the most insidious facets of racism; the suggestion that Black storytellers must always overcompensate for the limitations of racist depictions. In Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers delivered an unsettling masterpiece of dark, urban storytelling. We should appreciate that kind of storytelling; and embrace Black art that is authentic and evocative. Without punishing it for how it makes us look to racists who will never see past their stereotypes anyway.
Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola have made entire legacies depicting Italian-American criminality and culture in a way that links the two; but these acclaimed directors are rarely lumped together as "the Italian-American wave" of directors. And their stories, while undeniably drawing criticism in certain circles, aren't penalized for their specific cultural lens. Even as we fight for more space for Black storytelling and even as we push for variety in those stories; it's important to afford Black filmmakers and writers the space to go to whatever dark, shocking, unsettling space they need to draw from or put the audience in. As consumers, we can decide what may or may not fit our tastes and/or perspectives. But if we can laud the genius of Scorsese when his films are drenched in blood, we can also celebrate a grimy classic from the Hughes Brothers, without qualification.