Menace II Society (1993): Allen and Albert Hughes’s Stunning Debut, More Impressive than Boyz N’ the Hood

Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society is arguably the most striking debut in black cinema, even more stunning than Boyz N’ the Hood, to which it bears thematic resemblance.

Born in Detroit and raised in Pomona, California, the twins began making music videos at the age of 12, and were only 20 when they made the film. They use an extraordinary technique to make a tragic film about violence, loss, and death.

Dramatizing the plight of an entire class of men, the story is told by directors who were the same age as their heroes, young enough to get deep inside their characters.

Tyger Williams wrote the script based on a story he and the Hugheses developed together. While many of the events are true to life, they aren’t necessarily drawn from Williams’ life. Williams is a suburban child, but, for him, most black males in America go through the same things, whether raised in Bel-Air or Watts. Still, to guarantee authenticity, Williams and the Hugheses spent time in South Central, imbuing their script with the anger and frustration they felt.

Despite comparisons to Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society may be closer to Scorsese’s work. Williams watched carefully Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, as well as Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Brian De Palma’s Scarface, all vibrantly energetic films with gritty realism and effective use of voice-over narration. Working with cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, they employ a visual style associated with Scorsese (and Sergio Leone), but the point of view is very much their own.

Like Singleton, the Hugheses offer a despairing vision of family disintegration in the inner city, and like him, they endorse survival by staying close to the family. But the directors provide a much fuller understanding of black nihilism than Singleton. The film is a portrait of street brutality–the violence, motivated by petty revenge and uncontrollable rage, bursts out abruptly just like in Scorsese’s movie.

Steeped in harsh social and emotional realism, Menace II Society shows how one adolescent, Caine comes around to caring about living, though it’s too late. One of the most wrenching scenes is when Caine visits his mentor Pernell, who’s in prison, and gets “permission” to date his girl (Jada Pinkett). To counterbalance the mayhem, the Hugheses turn preachy, and the only sentimental note is in Caine’s relationship with his girlfriend. Nonetheless, their instincts as filmmakers override their goal as moralizers.

Shot with flair and power, the film exhibits a free-form style, which fits its narrative concerns.  The Hugheses are torn between the hopelessness of the present and the possibility of a better future. They’re split between fatalism and optimism, a schism that expresses the attitudes of a whole generation of African Americans.

The message, like that of Singleton’s 1991 film, is undeniably powerful: These young black men belong to the first generation of Americans who are more afraid–with good reasons–of life than of death.

Hugely successful, the movie appealed to both the hard-core and art film crowd, grossing over $27 million at the domestic box-office.