Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larenz Tate, Charles S. Dutton
Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Drug Use and Pervasive Language
There is a sense of pent-up unease that permeates "Menace II Society" that gives the film its edge. It's a sense of frustration, anger, and futility that makes it easy to understand what drives the culture of violence in the inner city community, especially when it comes to young black men.
But this isn't a maudlin cry for sympathy. The film was directed by the immensely talented Hughes Brothers, who are black and grew up in a similar environment. They don't ask for sympathy for their characters nor do they condemn them. The protagonist is likable but makes a number of bad decisions with his life (and has to pay for them). Instead, they seek to explore what drives this cycle of violence. Liberal viewers will cite a culture of racism and police brutality while conservatives will claim that they only care about drugs and lack initiative. The truth, according to the film, is a little of both.
Caine (Turner) is 18 and has just graduated from high school. While out celebrating, he and his best friend, O-Dog (Tate) go and buy beer. After the convenience store clerk makes a smart comment, O-Dog shoots the man dead and after demanding that the man's wife give him the surveillance tape, he shoots her too. Now Caine is at fault for accessory to murder and armed robbery. It doesn't really faze him, however. Caine, O-Dog, and everyone they know have grown up in a culture where violence, drugs and murder are a way of life. Caine's friend Ronnie (Smith) and Mr. Butler (Dutton), the only man Caine respects, urge him to leave, but the ties that bind are strong. When you've lived a life of desperation and violence, it's hard to be optimistic about the future, no matter how sure it seems.
Watching the film, I recognized that when I was his age, I was driven by the same impulses: instant gratification, cheap thrills and a hint of danger. Only where I was staying out late with friends and partying, Caine and O-Dog deal in drugs and crime. They're still human beings, but their environment has given them a warped value system. The dangers of the inner city have given the importance to loyalty, respect and revenge rather than self-improvement. At one point, his grandfather asks him if he wants to live or die? His response: "I don't know."
The performances are solid, and in the case of two of the actors, excellent. Tyrin Turner is a good anchor as Caine. He's smart and has a heart, but had the misfortune of being born into the worst environment. His grandparents try to keep him on the straight and narrow, but what teenager listens to his grandparents, especially when they constantly preach Bible passages to him? As O-Dog, Larenz Tate portrays an individual so warped by drugs and violence that life simply has no meaning for him. His focus is solely on himself: self-gratification and self-preservation. Other people have little to no meaning for him.
The best performances come from two of the most underrated performers working today. Jada Pinkett Smith, in her film debut, plays Ronnie, Caine's girlfriend of sorts. She was in a relationship with Pernell (Glenn Plummer), who taught Caine how to survive on the streets and is now in prison for life. She loves Caine and is trying to better herself for the sake of her son. Pinkett Smith brings a cool maturity to her performances, and that gives her an inner strength that makes Ronnie into more than an angel in disguise. The other performance worth mentioning is by Charles S. Dutton. He's only on screen for two scenes, but Dutton, who is always captivating, makes the most of them. He lays out Caine's reality in plain view, and without melodrama or exaggeration, gives him his two options. But Caine's instincts for survival and world view, both of which came from growing up in the inner city, make leaving and turning over a new leaf very difficult.
If there's a flaw with the film, it's that we don't see enough of Pernell. For someone who has so much of an impact on the central character, showing so little of him (and at the end, no less) is a mistake. A flashback of what lessons he taught Caine would have given the film a firmer foundation.
"Menace II Society" is not an easy film to watch. It doesn't take any prisoners or make any concessions for sensitive viewers. This is a violent, profane and uncompromising motion picture, and all the better for it. And it has never been more relevant than it is today.