Caine Lawson, the young man at the centre of Menace II Society, is not evil in the usual sense of the word. He has a good nature and quick intelligence, and in another world, he might have turned out happy and productive.
But he was not raised in a world that allowed that side of his character to develop, which is the whole point of this powerful film.
Like so many other young black men from the inner city, Caine has grown up in a world where the temptations of guns, drugs and violence are undermining the strong values of an older generation. As a small boy, he sees his father, Tat (Samuel L Jackson), murder a man over a trivial matter (he is later killed himself in a drug deal gone wrong). He sees his mother, Karen (Khandi Alexander), die of a heroin overdose. He takes an older neighbourhood man as his mentor, only to see him go to prison.
By the time he is in high school, Caine wears a beeper on his belt and is a small-time drug dealer. The film tells us he is society’s nightmare. “He’s young, he’s black, and he doesn’t give a fuck”.
But we can see that it’s more complicated than that. The tragedy of his life is that he cannot stand back a little, get a wider view, and see what alternatives are available to him.
He adopts the street values that are based on the corruption of the word “respect”. He wants respect but has done nothing to deserve it. For him, “respect” is the product of intimidation: if you back down because you fear him, you “respect” him.
The movie opens as Caine (Tyrin Turner) and his heedless, violent friend “O-Dog” (Larenz Tate) enter a Korean grocery store to buy a couple of beers. The grocer and his wife, who don’t want any trouble, ask them to make their purchase and leave. Caine and O-Dog engage in a little meaningless verbal intimidation, aware that because they are young and black, they can score some points from the couple’s fear.
“I feel bad for your mother,” the grocer says as they are about to leave. That is all O-Dog needs to hear; he murders the grocer and then forces his wife to hand over the store’s security videotape before killing her, too.
Caine is shocked by this sudden violent development. He went out to get a beer, and now he’s an accessory to murder.
During the course of the film, O-Dog will use the videotape for entertainment at parties, freeze-framing the moment of the grocer’s death.
Eventually, dozens of people know who killed the store owner, but no one will be charged because such violence is so common, and the laws are such that many murders simply slip through the fingers of the police.
There are people in Caine’s life who care for him: Stacy (Ryan Williams), a friend with an athletic scholarship; a teacher at school (Charles Dutton); his God-fearing grandparents (Marilyn Coleman and Arnold Johnson), who eventually throw him out of their home in the crime-ridden Jordan Downs housing projects in Watts; and his mentor’s girlfriend, Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), who wants him to move to Atlanta with her and start over.
But Caine’s world is narrow and limited. He has the values of his immediate circle and a lack of imagination, so he can’t envision a life for himself outside the limited existence of guns, cars, drugs and swagger.
If Boyz N the Hood was the story of a young man who was lucky enough to grow up with parents who cared and who escaped the dangers of the street, Menace II Society is, tragically, about many more young black men who are not so lucky.
The energetic movie – the directorial debut of twins Allen and Albert Hughes and based on a screenplay they wrote with their friend Tyger Williams – was filmed in Watts, Los Angeles. Production on the film was shut down for two days when members of the Hacienda Village Bloods (HVB) shot up the set in Jordan Downs, which was considered Crip territory.
The Hughes Brothers tell the story without making Caine seem either a hero or a victim: he is simply presented as a typical example – he is not bad, but he does bad things and clearly would do more.
The performances by Turner, Tate and Pinkett are filled with life and conviction.
Kevin “O-Dog” Anderson
Samuel L. Jackson
James “Pernell” Richards
Jullian Roy Doster
Christopher M. Brown
Erin LeShawn Wiley
Charles S. Dutton
Charles J. Grube
Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes