America’s Nightmare: “Menace II Society” and the Urban Crime Drama of the 1990s

Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Allen and Albert Hughes (credited as The Hughes Brothers) took the American box office by storm with a jarringly violent urban crime drama set in LA titled Menace II Society. Released two years after John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society avoids much of the more familial melodrama of Singleton’s film – instead turning in a ferocious indictment of inner city violence, something that would then permeate the genre in the mid and late 1990s.

Typically referred to as “hood” films, this genre really took hold in the US following the success of Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. Hood films were usually set in major cities, were almost always written by, directed by, and starred African Americans, and featured star-studded hip hop and R&B soundtracks that sold as well, if not better, than the films themselves. Popular titles include Ernest Dickerson’s Juice (1992), John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993), Jeff Pollack’s Above the Rim (1994), Doug McHenry’s Jason’s Lyric (1994), The Hughes Brothers’ sophomore feature Dead Presidents (1995), Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood (1995), F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996) and Hype Williams’ Belly (1998). In the midst of all of the more serious fare dominating the box office, comedy work grew out of the genre as well, most notably including F. Gary Gray’s Friday (1995) and Paris Barclay’s parody Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood (1996), which spoofed many of the above titles and more.

Before the Hughes Brothers unleashed Menace II Society, the genre had really only seen the critically acclaimed Boyz N the Hood and Juice, starring Tupac Shakur, both of which work primarily as character driven dramas. Both had strong anti-violence messages, with Singleton’s film even campaigning around a tagline that exclaimed, “Increase the Peace.” Despite this, Boyz still opened to headlines of violence reported at and around movie theaters screening the film, particularly in the Los Angeles neighborhoods where it takes place. Yet, two years later, the much more violent Menace II Society opened against no headlines regarding violence in or around theaters showing it. Rather, it was applauded by the media for fighting violence with violence – more accurately depicting the resulting carnage of inner city warfare in explicit detail, rendering an urban America where blood flowed freely in the streets while people looked away in real life and with snacks in hand in the safe confines of a movie theater. The film became a commercial success, grossing nine times its budget.

A still from “Menace II Society.”

Like Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society doesn’t attribute this violence to contemporary – then early 90s – America, but traces it backwards via flashbacks. Going back to the 1970s, we are witness to drug deals gone wrong and debts retrieved in blood – setting up the blood currency of its characters circa 1993. A father-son dynamic runs strong here too, with sons replicating the life choices their own fathers made, even – or especially – when advised not to. The only real dividing line we are given between these characters is political, rather than familial: the 1965 Watts riots. Resulting in dozens of deaths, millions of dollars of damage and a city seemingly at war with the police force meant to protect them – the riots have informed three decades of unease in the neighborhood of Watts, all the way up to the Rodney King riots which took place just a year prior to the release of Menace II Society.

The Hughes Brothers play actual footage of the Watts riots in the opening of the film, thus setting actual violence against the simulated violence of the film. When we see O-Dog (an absolutely maniacal Larenz Tate) shoot a Korean store-owner repeatedly, it not only reverses a real life incident in the killing of Latasha Harlins in 1991, but posits it as a fantastical, stylized reality compared to the footage of the ‘65 riots that open the film. And like this footage, which we are able watch again and again thanks to documentation and ease of media access, O-Dog keeps the surveillance tape of this murder not merely as a trophy, but as something to watch whenever he wants to revisit that lust for blood.

There’s a point where the film’s lead, Caine (Tyrin Turner), refers to O-Dog as “America’s Nightmare: young, black, and didn’t give a fuck,” and that’s the most frightening aspect of Menace II Society’s violence versus that of something like Boyz N the Hood or Juice, which came before it. Where the violence in those films is situated around a system of organized crime, the violence in Menace II Society is reckless, wanton, and blunt. There is often little to no provocation for it, we are seldom offered any respite, and redemption seems to be both unattainable and unwanted. When fighting violence with violence, perhaps the best way to do that is to strip any meaning to the violence at all. And that was the nightmare of America in Watts in 1965, in the 1991 Crenshaw of Boyz N the Hood, in the 1993 Watts of Menace, the 1994 Harlem of Above the Rim, the 1994 Houston of Jason’s Lyric, and the 1995 Newark of New Jersey Drive. And it’s still the nightmare of America in 2018.

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is a regular contributor to Paracinema Magazine, writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a Creative Associate at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.
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