My cousin and I went to a see it at a theater that has long since closed down, The Americana. Patrons were being waved down with security wands, scanned for guns. It was an inconveinece that we didn’t even think twice about. Hey, it was better than getting shot. This was Detroit. In the early 90’s, and violence was just a fact of life.
And so were guns. And the death or incarceration of young, black men. Doughboy had only declared it 2 years earlier, but it seemed like they still didn’t know, didn’t show, or just didn’t care about what was going on in the hood.
But, then came Menace II Society.
The “hood movie” genre was already in full swing. New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, and Juiceprovided the visuals for the hardcore music of the time. Set to gangster rap soundtracks, the new image of African American culture now had faces to match it. While Nino Brown was a villain worth hating, Doughboy tugged at your heart strings, and Bishop, you just felt sorry for.
But, then came O-Dog.
Nothing could prepare you for the opening scene of the movie. The random violence was astonishing. O-Dog was an antihero. He blurred the lines between hero and villain. Because for all of his bad-ness, he felt like someone you knew, someone you loved. He was young, black, and didn’t give a f**k.
But the heart of the story was Caine.
Caine Lawson was a boy I went to high school with. And if you grew up in an urban jungle, you probably did too, and if you didn’t, you might have been him. The son of a junkie mother and a drug dealing, murderous father, raised by grandparents who didn’t understand him, Caine seemed doomed from the very start. But, he was smart. Unlike most of his friends, he was graduating from high school, a fact that endeared him even more with the audience. And, hey, I’ll say it… he was cute. He was handsome in a way that wasn’t off-putting. He was handsome in a way that was just above average, just enough for it to matter. He could pull the girls, with his texturized hair and his silk shirts. He had a nice (stolen) ride, and nice (stolen) rims.
He was such an epitome of young, Black manhood in the early 90’s, that he could have been from anywhere. But, he grew up in South Central Los Angeles. In the late 80’s and 90’s, after the rise of NWA and West Coast hip-hop, South Central was synonymous with violence and anger. Having been filmed and released just a few short years after the Rodney King beating and the uprisings that followed, the beginning images of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the 1992 LA Riots (or Rebellion) explained without words the city’s long-history of police brutality, gang violence, and systematic oppression.
And that was the point.
Menace II Society was, above all, the story of forgotten men. While Boyz N the Hood was a story of lost promise, of an invisible war waging in America’s ghettos, there was still a silver lining; after all Tre and Brandi went away to college, one at Morehouse and the other at Spelman. Caine never made it to Atlanta with his girl. Instead he died, right when he had found a reason to live.
And that was what made the tragic film so painful and powerful. After seeing it that opening weekend, I saw it again a few days later with my film buff mother, and afterwards in little Ford Escort, she threw her head into her hands and sobbed. Shocked, I stared at her as she wailed about the “vicious cycle.” I understood, but in my heart, I chose to make up a little story that Caine made it to the hospital and lived. I held that in my heart for years. To this day, when the movie comes on television, I usually turn it off before he gets shot. He was that powerful a protagonist.
The tragedy in Caine’s death was that it seemed so unavoidable. That it was a fate that he knew was hopeless to outrun. Caine’s fate was like so many in the Black community. A waste, a young man who could have been a good father, a good contributor to society. Instead, he was just another one of the lost ones, another brother you tipped the bottle for.
The late, great Roger Ebert, who absolutely loved this film, stated in his 4 star review: He (Caine) has the values of his immediate circle, and the lack of imagination: He cannot envision a world for himself outside of the limited existence of guns, cars, drugs and swagger. This movie, like many others, reminds us that murder is the leading cause of death among young black men. But it doesn’t blame the easy target of white racism for that: It looks unblinkingly at a street culture that offers its members few choices that are not self-destructive.
The Hughes Brothers didn’t blame society for the problems in the hood. But, it didn’t let it off the hook either. It showed, plainly, that there was a cycle of violence going on in the ghetto, and young men, smart men, handsome men, black men, were dying everyday and we were doing nothing about it. The film asked hard questions and demanded answers that still have yet to come. Questions about single motherhood, the growing numbers of grandparents raising kids–co-parenting with the streets, America’s obscenely high incarceration rate, the proliferation of guns in the Black community, and how systematic oppression (lack of access to liveable wage jobs, quality schools, and basic services) just creates more problems for all of us.
20 years later, street culture is celebrated. Films like Menace II Society put faces and images on stories that rappers had started to tell. And those stories only got louder, with driving bass beats to back them. Within months, The Chronic would drop and so would Doggystyle and Los Angeles and “gangster rap” would capture the imagination of America for years.
There is still crime in the Black community, still oppression, still bad schools, still single moms. But, I choose to believe that there has been progress in the last 20 years, and I don’t mean because we have a black President. There have been some decrease in violent crimes in major cities, the war on drugs locked up more than a few good men, but there has been a decrease in drug-related crime. There are more grassroots community programs and agencies in our cities, saving kids one at a time.
So, this year, as I prepare to head to my 20th high school reunion, I can see a movie in my hometown without there being metal detectors.