Let me just come out and say it: I utterly and totally loathed Menace II Society. The Dork Report’s 1/2 star rating is reserved for true cinematic crimes against humanity, movies that I think the world would have been a better place had they not been made (zero stars are for those rare and special cases, beyond the pale, where bad transmutes into good, like the perversely enjoyable Plan 9 From Outer Space – read The Dork Report review). Of course, I’m a relatively privileged white boy from suburbia, so it’s going to be tricky for me to explain my passionately negative reaction to a movie about African Americans trapped in racist, drug-infested Watts, South Central Los Angeles. The cheap way out would be to claim I’m not the target audience, but that itself would be a kind of racist copout.
The best way to explain how I feel about this movie is to compare it to two of the best works of fiction I’ve ever seen: Do the Right Thing (1989) and The Wire (2002-08). Menace II Society opens with stock footage of 1965 Watts riots, and then fast-forwards to Watts in 1993. It’s a cheap and crass stab at social relevance that only movies like Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing have earned. I don’t know how much factual or biographical truth is in Menace II Society, but everything that follows strikes me as exploitation; which is to say, the worst, most sensationalized depictions of drug culture dramatized to scare the bejeezus out of supposedly civilized cinema goers. Do the Right Thing presented one of the most complex views of racial tension ever seen in the movies, but Menace II Society is a mere lowlights reel of relentless violence and depravity that seemed to me to be racist itself. Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenze Tate), and Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), not a single character can speak a single sentence without at least three n-words and two f-bombs.
The Wire is one of the only TV series to approach the level of literature, and like Do the Right Thing it counts race among its many deep themes. Many of its characters are also underprivileged African Americans on the wrong side of the law. But not once did I ever sense The Wire was exploitative or sensationalistic in any way. Menace II Society barely deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as The Wire, but I did note a very similar scene in both: in the second season of The Wire, Bodie and Shamrock take a rare road trip out of Baltimore and, unable to find any hip-hop on the radio, instead find themselves listening to NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion in baffled silence. Likewise, the best scene in Menace II Society is of an African American family at home on Christmas Eve watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and utterly unable to relate to or derive any pleasure from it.
Menace II Society (1993, New Line Cinema) is the debut film from twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who would later go on to direct From Hell (2001), and completely miss the point of the source material: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel. In direct contrast to John Singleton’s simply, classically shot Boyz n the Hood (read The Dork Report review), Menace II Society is a slickly polished production (which, I believe, only contributes to its glamorization of the thug gangsta lifestyle). But it’s a clumsy film in other ways, with terrible voiceover narration stupidly telling instead of showing. But it pays off in the end with the realization of the only interesting device of the film: it’s narrated by a dead man.
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