Menace II Society is a 1993 film written by Tyger Williams and directed by The Hughes Brothers. I consider Menace II Society to be a part of the classic 1990s Black film canon. It contains similar themes to Boyz in The Hood and South Central by telling the story of young Black men growing up in environments where gangs fill the gaps left by their absent fathers.
Menace II Society begins with two young Black men, Caine and O-Dog, who appear to be in their teens visiting a convenience store to buy beer. While shopping the two are followed around the store by a female attendant and watched closely by the cashier from behind the counter. With this being a neighborhood store, the employees may have had run-ins with these guys. But it also seems possible that they don’t have prior experience with these particular guys and are stereotyping them.
Instead of just asking them to leave the store, which would be their right, they passive-aggressively rush them. They want them to buy something but to do so quickly and leave. They’re willing to take their money but uncomfortable with the guys’ presence in the store. On the flip side, the guys seem used to this treatment and are cool and not at all worried though they realize that they’re being watched and followed.
O-Dog shows himself to be sensitive to disrespect, impulsive, and very comfortable with violence. He’s not at all hesitant about attacking someone despite the possible consequences of facing serious jail time. O-Dog and to a lesser degree, Caine, are the embodiment of the stereotypes of the young Black males. Though in the telling of their story it provides some context and explanation as to how some young Black men end up this way.
I think the creators of Menace II Society made a wise decision by focusing on Caine who is definitely from the street life but not all the way gone. O-Dog is younger than Caine but more hardened and immature. Had the film been from his perspective it probably would have glorified the violence but lacked some of Caine’s willingness to be introspective.
Caine is an orphan who was raised by his grandparents in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Caine’s parents are portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson and one of my favorite actresses, Khandi Alexander. They appear for just one scene but the actors’ talent is undeniable. Also, the implications of that scene offer so much insight into the person that Caine will become.
While alive, his parents were a hot flaming mess. Caine’s father worked various odd jobs on occasion but was primarily a drug dealer while his mother was a heroin addict. (I’ve seen Alexander play two heroin addicts years apart and she brought something amazingly different to each role.) His parents were a negative influence and their friends who surrounded him were also into the street life.
Most dads or father figures hold the seat of a bike while teaching you how to balance without training wheels, how to position your hands on a football, or how to hold and swing a baseball bat. But for Caine, during a house party one of his parents’ friends, Pernell, sits him on his lap and allows him to drink beer and hold a gun. Growing up in a home where drugs, violence, and other forms of dysfunction were present helped to normalize these activities.
When we move forward to the present, Caine and the people around him are making a big deal out of him living to the age of 18 and graduating from high school. Maybe this is a result of the movie being from the early 1990s but I thought it was pretty sad. It just seemed like the expectations for him were very low. I get it that at the time, the death rate for young Black men in Los Angeles (and other major cities around the country) was high. But the death of a young person should be shocking, not their survival. And it should be expected that you graduate from high school.
I’m going to go off on a tangent here but something I’ve always been curious about is that Caine’s parents are incredibly dysfunctional but his grandparents are decent people. We have a lot of stories about the Civil Rights generation and the generation of teens that came of age during the 80s/90s crack epidemic. I would find it incredibly interesting to see a story that explores the family breakdown and devastation that occurred during the generation in between. Throughout Menace II Society, we see and come to understand how Caine developed into the young man he’s come to be. But, what exactly happened to Caine’s mother and father that took them so far off the path that their parents followed?
O-Dog in his ignorance and IDGAF attitude begins showing the tape from the convenience store to everyone. He had the good sense to confiscate the tape which would clearly show him committing a crime. But then turns around and shows it to people which increases the likelihood that they will be caught. Being in this tense and impulsive environment, there’s not a lot of forethought or planning given to actions. Thus things can be cool one minute and then go completely wrong in seconds. Thus a regular trip to the store turns into serious felonies and possible jail time. A night hanging out turns into a carjacking where a loved one dies and you almost lose your life in the process.
A lot of the nonsense the two young men get into is a result of their misguided sense of masculinity and manhood which they learn from the older gangsters. Selling drugs and being involved in the criminal life is not a good look at any age. But, it seems particularly sad for an older man.
A-Wax (MC Eiht) and Chauncy (Clifton Powell) are older gangsters who encourage the younger guys to commit crimes. A-Wax, in particular, is a Grade-A instigator who constantly calls the younger guys punks when they hesitate to shoot or otherwise participate in violence. Chauncy is a smarmy older guy who enlists them to do his dirty work such as stealing cars. Lew-Loc (Too $hort) is also around, he doesn’t seem to be much older but is a one-stop black market where drugs and guns can be purchased. Something to note is that everybody in this circle is either selling drugs or involved in some type of illegal activity but yet none of them seem to have any real money.
Pernell was the friend of Caine’s parents who first let him hold a gun. As Caine was growing up Pernell looked out for him and as a result, Caine feels a certain obligation to look out for Pernell’s girlfriend Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and his young son Anthony. It’s not exactly spelled out but Ronnie seems to be possibly a little older than Caine but closer to his age than Pernell’s. Pernell was already a grown man when Caine was a kid and would be several years older than Ronnie.
Females are present to some degree either as friends or eye candy but don’t seem to be directly involved in the more violent aspects of street life. But, as Caine points out, Ronnie was if not involved as Pernell’s girl then was around the street life and knows how things work. Through seeing Pernell go to jail and wanting better for her son, Ronnie still associates with the guys but stays away from the more dangerous and dysfunctional aspects of street life.
There’s a scene in Menace II Society where Caine allows Anthony to hold his gun and practice aiming and shooting. It’s reminiscent of the earlier scene where young Caine is sitting on Pernell’s lap holding his gun. Pernell warns Caine that the gun is dangerous but show him how to hold and point it. Caine does the same for Pernell’s son and sees it as passing down knowledge and teaching him how to survive in their neighborhood.
Many of the men around Caine have been to prison so its normalized and no big deal to them. But, when Caine finds himself detained in jail, he realizes that it’s not where he wants to be. Faced with the expectations of seeking revenge, Caine provides scenarios in which he will not kill which results in O-Dog questioning his manhood. You get a sense that deep down inside, this isn’t what or who Caine wants to be. But, it’s the standard for his neighborhood, it’s all he knows, and he wants to be accepted so he succumbs to peer pressure.
Robbing, selling drugs, and killing to get what you want is a way of life. Everyone is out for self by any means. These guys are putting their lives and liberty at risk in pursuit of big money as they aren’t willing to work regular jobs to earn a living. (Just a side note, but I always cringe to see a group of men passing a blunt or bottle of alcohol and everyone is putting their mouth on it. It’s just nasty.)
The crew is rounded out by two other young friends. Sharif (Vonte Sweet) is a pro-Black young man who used to also get into trouble but found his way back to the right path through Islam. Stacy (Ryan Williams) is also managing to stay out of criminal trouble but he sees himself as a playa/pimp and seems to have a trailer-load of kids.
Neither of these guys is perfect but they recognize that they need a change. Together, Sharif and Stacy try to encourage Caine to expand his horizons by getting out of Watts and experiencing somewhere else before the streets consume him. They are positive presences in Caine’s life as they’re both comfortable setting aside the expectations of others and aspire to more than the neighborhood.
Out of the street guys, we only see Caine’s family and home life. It seems like O-Dog doesn’t have anyone outside of the crew caring for or guiding him. The older guys are essentially the father figures for the young guys like Caine and O-Dog who are coming up. Sharif is the only one we see whose father, Mr. Butler (Charles S. Dutton), is around and an active positive presence in his life. All of the guys respect Mr. Butler and he’s able to get them to at least listen by speaking to them in a manner to which they can relate. Menace II Society juxtaposes the importance of young Black men having older Black men in their lives to not just offer guidance, but the right kind of guidance.
Even in his ignorance, O-Dog does have some degree of sense and displays respect for Caine’s grandfather and Mr. Butler. In their presence, he curbs his language, attempts to hide his weed, and refers to them as Mr. Last Name. Caine and O-Dog have some degree of home training but put that aside and become different people when they’re out on the streets amongst their friends. In the presence of these mature men, Caine and O-Dog drop their tough guy demeanors and seem more at ease with themselves and their true feelings.
We learn that O-Dog feels hopeless and thinks God couldn’t possibly care about him because of where and how they live. They see the hypocrisy and futility of Caine’s grandfather’s approach of relying on religion for salvation. But, they’re also hesitant to set aside what they’ve learned from the streets to try something different.
Caine is surrounded by people who care about him though some are misguided in the ways they try to look out for him. His life has been hard and things are rough for him but the decisions he makes don’t help matters. It’s like being in a hole with a shovel for so long that when someone lowers a ladder and tells you to reach out for it your mind can’t even conceive the idea of climbing to freedom. So you remain in the hole and keep digging deeper hoping that somehow you’ll eventually come out on the other side.
Anthony and Pernell represent Caine at various points in his life but with different paths available.
Anthony is a re-imagining of Caine as a child, lacking his father but with the positive presence of a mother who is actively involved and trying to keep him on the right path. When Caine was a child, his mother was consumed by her drug addiction and while she did steer him away from hanging around the older guys she did so in a very aggressive manner, at times cursing at him. On the other hand, Ronnie corrects Anthony but is patient and takes the time to talk to and explain things to not only him but also Caine. She might have been at one point but is no longer wrapped up in the street life and she’s doing what she can to keep it away from her son.
Sadly, Pernell is what Caine can look forward to in the future if he doesn’t make changes to his life but manages to continue living. Years, if not decades sitting behind prison bars. Because of the people Cain hangs around he constantly finds himself in situations that involve criminal activity which can lead to prison time.
The events of the main part of Menace II Society cover the short span of probably just a summer. Yet, within that time, Caine is involved in or present at three murder scenes, carjacks someone, attempts to steal a car, purchases what seems to be a stolen car, assaults someone, gets shot, and is severely beaten. Some of these situations result in run-ins with the police. Granted in some instances he is a victim but in others, he is the one perpetrating the crime.
In his day, Pernell was likely involved in much of the same activity. It’s sad that for some men such as Pernell, they don’t sit down and think about what they’re doing until they’re in prison. A lot of the mistakes these guys make are a matter of youthful immaturity. But by the time they get their minds right, it’s too late. There are plenty of grown men who are suffering from the consequences of poor decisions they made as young men. And those are the ones who are lucky to live long enough to grow and see things differently.
Some films are good because they make sense and are entertaining. But, then you have films that are great because the characters are complex and there is enough depth to the story for analysis and discussion. On a surface level, Menace II Society is a good movie with plenty of action and drama to keep most audiences interested. I know a lot of people get caught up in O-Dog being a loose cannon and Caine constantly getting into nonsense. But, if you take the time to look beyond the violence and machismo, it’s a pretty deep film. It unpacks a lot of the issues surrounding young Black men and their place in society.
I like movies that tell a good story and are a solid representation of the film creator’s artistic vision. But I think great movies get the creator’s point across but leave enough room for the audience to form their own opinions and interpretations. At this point, I’m assuming most people have seen Menace II Society. If it’s been a while, I recommend watching it again paying attention to the inner lives of the characters. It remains an incredible conversation piece.
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