One of greatest filmmaking achievements of 1990s is Menace II Society, 1993 drama directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. The author of this review became aware of this film's existence only after learning that it had won MTV Movie Award for 1993, beating competition which included nominees like Fugitive, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. MTV Movie Award might not be as prestigious as Oscar or Palme d'Or, but it nevertheless represents a triumph for any film maker, especially if the film makers in question happen to be 21-year old sand the film in question their feature film debut.
Despite its prestigious award Menace II Society never reached Croatian cinema in regular distribution, and it could be explained rather simply - it was relatively low budget film, with barely any recognisable stars (Samuel L. Jackson, who appears briefly at the beginning of the film, still had to reach his post-Pulp Fiction stardom) and the subject matter wasn't particularly attractive. The plot, set in black suburbs of Los Angeles, notorious after 1992 riots, deals with the last summer in life of Caine "Kaydee" Lawson (played by Tyrin Turner), young man who has just graduated from local high school. His parents - drug dealers and heroin addicts - have died long time ago and he was raised by his helpless grandparents and the streets of ghetto, surrounded by unemployment, poverty, drugs, gangs, violence and police brutality. Caine is decent fellow who tries to do the right thing, but in his neighbourhood "right thing" involves selling drugs in order to make ends meet and violence as the only way to settle personal and business disputes. Thanks to his sociopathic friend O-Dog (played by Larenz Tate) a trip to local grocery store ends up with brutal double murder and Caine gets sucked into vicious circle of violence, killings and even more violent retributions. Few well-intentioned individuals, including his girlfriend Ronnie (played by Jada Pinkett), offer him alternatives that would get him out of ghetto and enable him to start new, really decent life. But Caine, still lured by the promise of easily-gained wealth and fear-induced "respect", is reluctant to take such opportunity until it is too late.
Hughes brothers, who were 21 during the production of this film and had only couple of music videos as their film making experience, show incredible skill in directing Menace II Society. The opening of the film, with its display of brutal, almost meaningless violence, manages to shock the audience and glues their attention to the screen, but the violence, no matter how graphic, is never exploitative. Hughes brothers' script, co-written with Tyger Willaims, also avoids one of many traps that have blighted so many 1990s films dealing with the reality of black inner-city ghettos. One of the most common traps was to have a hero with whom the audience must identify - unquestionably nice guy who just happens to end with the wrong crowd and who would see the error of his ways by the end of the film. In this case, such thing never happens – Caine might be confused young man, but his actions, no matter how understandable in the context of his immediate surrounding, are morally reprehensible and the accumulation of bad choices can have only one and rather predictable result.
Another common flaw of such films is the use of heavy-handed socio-political messages. Hughes brothers make few points in this film - drugs, gangs and violence are bad; unemployment, poverty, racism and government's neglect of inner-city ghettos are among the causes for that - but this message is not hammered into audience. Menace II Society makes those points subtly, allowing the viewers to make their own conclusions and even hinting that the some problems might come from the black community itself. Bleakness of the subject matter and the tone of film is moderated by characters and subplots that offer some glimmer of hope, if not for the protagonist, than for people around him - alternatives to one-way street of gangs, drugs and violence can be found in education, religion or even the simple change of scenery.
The acting in film is nothing short of excellent. Relatively unknown Tyrin Turner handles his role as good as his much better known colleagues - Larenz Tate and Jada Pinkett (apart from Jackson, some well-known actors like Bill Duke and Charles S. Dutton also appear in small roles). The ending of the film, which is supposed to be as shocking as its opening, leaves something to be desired; it is predictable, melodramatic and thus compromising the realistic roughness of the film. But this isn't the reason for today's audience to dismiss Menace II Society as manipulative; the talent, energy and conviction of Hughes brothers deserve today's audience just as much as their film has deserved MTV Movie Award so many years ago.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on September 16th 2003)
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