The early years of a child’s life are among the most important. During these crucial years, a child will learn to form bonds with the people he or she knows and loves and based on how they are raised it will surely dictate how they will evolve in years to come. If Boyz n the Hood showed us the hope of getting out of a life of crime, death and hardship then Menace II Society strips all of that away to give us a harsh reality check of inner-city violence. The Hughes Brothers make their directorial debut with Menace II Society, a powerful, bleak and impressive film that equally matches the themes and lasting effects as displayed in Boyz n the Hood.
When one enters the home of a child, one can’t help but wonder how they will turn out in life. One clue on how to ponder that answer is to view the parents of said child. The movie follows a man named Caine (Tyrin Turner) who also narrates the movie. The movie opens with Caine and his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) entering a corner store to buy some beer. O-Dog is a bit high tempered, and that’s putting it lightly, when a store clerk is constantly staring at him. He accosts the woman and when going to purchase the beer, the cashier even mocks O-Dog resulting in him to lose his cool and shoot the cashier and store clerk to death. To put icing on the cake, he robs the store and steals the surveillance tape so that no evidence would be found. O-Dog is actually proud of what he has done even though his friend Caine is not only surprised but shocked.
Then we turn to see Caine’s childhood, a less than appealing scene. He’s just a little guy walking in his home while his father Tat (Samuel L. Jackson) is playing poker with some friends and his mother is looking to score some heroin that she can shoot up her arm. During the poker game, Caine witnesses his father pull out a gun and shoot a man six times while his mother is strung out on the couch. A horrible situation to be in, but prior to this happening, Caine ventures outside where he engages with two older boys. They let him play with a gun and even urge him to take a swig of beer. Watching this scene in particular is truly heartbreaking because no child should ever have to witness such a thing.
Fast-forward to the present day where Caine is living with his grandparents in the city of Watts, a suburb of Los Angeles. After his father was killed during a drug deal and his mother overdose on drugs, Caine went to live with his grandparents. They seem to be a loving couple for gave Caine a good upbringing. His grandfather preaches the world of God and attempts to instill in Caine that life is worth living if you do the right thing. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Caine and O-Dog are living to venture outside where the grandfather asks, “Caine, do you care whether you live or die?” A question that later proves to have a lasting effect.
During the course of the film, O-Dog openly brags about the killing of the cashier and store clerk and even goes so far as to show the video tape to several of his friends. Caine isn’t really a bad person, but his displays an utter lack of self-control when getting what he wants. He learned from an age to make and sell drugs and does so even after graduating from high school. He never was interesting in finding a legit job even if it doesn’t pay the bills or lifestyle that he seeks. He engages in illegal activity such as auto theft and even armed robbery. One night, his cousin his gunned down right in front of him resulting in him getting shot and barely surviving.
Throughout the movie, Caine make these decisions that will have devastating effects. Take for example, the free reign he has to arm himself with a firearm only to carjack a guy who has nice rims on his car. Why pay for them when he can steal them? Things start to look up when he flirts with a girl he meets in the park but it’s nothing serious. He sees it as a casual thing that is until she becomes pregnant leading to a confrontation that has lasting consequences.
There is someone is Caine’s life that does mean something to him and that is Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith). After her boyfriend was sent to prison for murder, Caine decided to look after her and her young son. Ronnie sees a lot of Caine in her past boyfriend, that is until he went down a path of no return. She urges Caine to seek a better life for himself and even gets a job offer in Atlanta. She wants Caine to go with her in order to get a fresh start. Caine get all this advice from Ronnie, his grandfather and two friends of his Stacy (Ryan Williams) and Sharif (Vonte Sweet). Both Stacy and Sharif plan to move to Kansas where Stacy is going to play football, but in the eyes of Caine, the life he has lived thus far is all he knows.
I do want to mention Larenz Tate as O-Dog. Although it’s not mentioned in the movie, according to the production notes, his character is only fifteen years old. With his youth, lack of judgement and impulse control, he becomes a violent individual who isn’t afraid of anything. With a gun in his hand and that attitude of his, he’s essentially a lethal weapon that will explode at any given moment; quite similar to Joe Pesci’s Oscar winning performance in Goodfellas. Larenz Tate is incredible in his performance and when I first saw this movie, I wondered what kind of childhood his character had.
To call Menace II Society an important film is an understatement. Surely, I love Boyz n the Hood but I was really impressed with the level of violence and realism brought to screen with Menace II Society. The Hughes Brothers bring us into a world where violence is everywhere, but also a part of daily life. This is what these young men know and anything outside of their world, feels almost alien to them. Just because they move somewhere else, they will still be black. It’s soul crushing to hear that, because these men are so young and they feel that there isn’t any hope for them no matter where they go. Also, the actions of Caine and O-Dog have little effect on them. Sharif is one to explain how if they can change their perception of life, then perhaps they will see the possibilities of life outside of the crime ridden area that they grew up in.
Both Hughes Brothers wrote the film along with Tyger Williams and their script is brutally honest, unforgettable and a power punch to the gut. In essence, this movie shows us the result of how Caine was raised and how he acts in his young adult life. Caine doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and appears content with how he’s living now. He’s grown up with drugs, gun, violence and even casual sex, but we do get the impression that Caine isn’t a terrible person, much like O-Dog who revels in violence.
The only thing I wanted more from the film was to see the interaction between his grandparents once he went to live with them. From watching the movie, Caine is influenced by life on the street and his friends. His grandparents seem to really care about him but appear to have given up on the hope that Caine will live a fulfilling life. Once the film concludes, we are left is a state of pure silence. We ultimately know what will happen and when it does occur, it is a tragedy for all of those involved.
Both Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society are powerful and emotionally riveting films regarding characters that most people, not even law enforcement, seem to give a damn about. It’s almost as if they are truly alone in this world and we can only hope that things could have been different in the early years of their life. If only they had the right influences, if only they took the necessary advice when it was given, if only life treated them more fairly could things be different. While both films touch on similar themes and underlying message, Menace II Society is a more aggressive film that pulls no punches. It isn’t sanitized nor leaves us with the positive feeling that most movies would rather settle with.
Both of these movies show us the realities of life in hood; a term I just can’t understand. Every neighborhood is different whether by nationality, income, property wealth and of course, crime. Just because people live in a certain neighborhood doesn’t make them any different from the neighborhood that I live in. I hate the fact that crime runs rampant in certain neighborhoods and especially when you notice that only certain stores are in poorer neighborhoods. I commend both John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers for bringing us their stories so that we don’t forget what has happened and what may continue to happen in the future.
Both of these movies should remind us that the black communities are just as important as every other community in any city. It takes a community to change its outward appearance and it starts in the home of every family. This won’t happen overnight, but it can be done. Sadly, both of these films didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture for their respective years that they were released. More people should see these movies to appreciate stories that they might not be familiar with. While Boyz n the Hood turns thirty years old this year, Menace II Society isn’t far off.
Boyz n the Hood will be returning to the Big Screen for its 30th anniversary later this month for a two-day special event on February 28th March 3rd. Whether you watch these movies at home or venture to the theater, they are still incredible films with exceptional performances, Oscar worthy scripts and fine directors who brought their scripts to life. Let us all “Increase the Peace.”