We decided to go relatively old school this week, with a film I really loved when I was a teenager. Around the early 90’s there were a lot of great movies of a similar ilk, including John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood which I would later go on to write a paper on for my Media Studies A-level. Glynn also had fond memories of this movie which meant he was keen to watch along with me, something he rarely does with Collab movies.
But did it stand up? Let’s have a look, shall we?
Menace II Society (1993)
This is the truth. This is what’s real.
A young street hustler attempts to escape the rigors and temptations of the ghetto in a quest for a better life.
We open in a liquor store, where central characters Kaydee “Caine” Lawson and BFF Kevin “O-Dog” Anderson are picking up beer. Angered by the attitude of the Korean proprietors, who rush to get them out of the store, the scene escalates when the clerk tell O-Dog he feels sorry for his mother. This doesn’t end well for the store owners, who are violently slain and then robbed, of their CCTV footage and any money lying around. O shows zero remorse for his actions, while Caine is understandably shaken up. A narrator – Caine himself – laments that one minute he’s just minding his own business buying booze, the next he’s an accessory to murder.
Following this incident, it becomes increasingly clear that O doesn’t give a fuck about anything as he brazenly shows the store’s video footage to anybody with eyes. His relentless bragging does not sit well with Caine but he doesn’t do much about it.
A little background into Caine’s upbringing shows us that his mother was a heroin addict, his father (Samuel L. Jackson) a violent dealer with no qualms about bringing their son up around narcotics, guns and more violence. After the death of both his parents (father to a drug deal gone bad, mother to an overdose), Caine is brought up by his grandparents in the projects.
While Grandpapa and Grandmama are God-fearing people, they’re unable to control Caine’s actions on the streets. Shit hits the fan when Caine and his cousin Harold are carjacked on the way home from a party, and Harold is killed. Caine is seriously wounded but survives.
Meanwhile, Caine has been spending time with Ronnie (Pinkett-Smith), the former girlfriend of his childhood mentor, Pernell (Glenn Plummer) who’s serving life in prison. She has a son by Pernell and is trying hard to get an education and bring up her child as ‘normally’ as possible. As someone who was formerly ‘down’, Ronnie’s looking forward to a better life for her and her son, and is furious when Caine shows the boy his gun, even though it’s not loaded. She’s probably right to worry, as Caine joins O in an act of vengeance against the carjackers that killed Harold.
Later, Caine’s picked up by the cops and despite taking his fingerprints from a bottle of beer dropped at the scene of the liquor store murders, he’s released without charge. After this close call you’d think our boy would want to keep a low profile but this is not the case, and despite the fact Grandpapa tells his grandson he’s going to end up in jail or dead, Caine continues to tear it up. Carjackings and dodgy drug deals are the order of the day. He also meets a new girl Ilena (Erin Wiley Sands) despite growing increasingly close to Ronnie.
But when responsibility for his recklessness comes a knocking at the same time as opportunity – a new city with Ronnie and her boy – which way is Caine going to go?
Uh. Well firstly, this film opens and closes with incredibly visceral and shocking scenes. It all just seems inevitable and not just because I’ve seen this movie a good few times. I definitely felt conflicted by the way it made me feel which I will try to unravel – probably badly – in the next few paragraphs.
None of the characters are likeable – except for Ronnie – and their poor decision making made it hard for me to connect with any of them. I didn’t feel this way about Boyz (which I consider the yardstick against which we measure all films of this nature, unfairly or not), and really rooted for most of the central characters. But I think that might be the point here, these boys aren’t heroes or victims. They’re horribly flawed.
In fact, film critic Roger Ebert said just that, praising “the way the filmmakers tell Caine’s story without making him seem either the hero or victim.” His full review here.
There’s a lot to think about. Caine obviously has some semblance of a moral code – he’s lovely to Ronnie and good to her kid, loves Pernell – but he doesn’t stand much of a chance, at least without drastically changing his surroundings (something he eventually tries to do). Having grown up a witness to his parents’ failings, including seeing his own father murder a man, it’s not surprising he finds himself here. It’s not fair and doesn’t have to be inevitable, but his view of the world has been narrowed by his experiences.
The film also touches upon systematic racism, police brutality and toxic masculinity. In hindsight, I like this film less that I did twenty years ago – I don’t think Caine comes across quite as keen on a fresh start as I used to think – but I appreciate that it got me thinking again. Especially since its themes couldn’t be more topical if they tried.
It has a banging soundtrack and looks great still, plus those aforementioned scenes remain genuinely nail-biting.