The song lyrics above are from the soundtrack of the film Menace II Society and correspond directly to the hardships that people are given when growing up in the ghetto and when surrounded by a life of violence. Because they know nothing other than this aggressive and brutal way of life, they continue this violent cycle and rarely break away to begin a new way of life. Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes direct the film. The Hughes began making movies at age 12, but their formal film education began their freshman year of high school when Allen took a TV production class.
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They soon made a short film entitled How To Be A Burglar and people began to take notice. Their next work, Uncensored Videos, was broadcast on cable, introducing them to a wider audience. After high school, Albert began taking classes at the Los Angeles Community College Film School. Two short films established the twins’ reputation as innovative filmmakers and allowed them to direct Menace II Society (1993), which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and grossed nearly 10 times as much as its $3 million budget.
After following up with Dead Presidents (1995) they directed the feature-length documentary American Pimp (1999). From the very first scene, detailing Caine and O-Dog’s fatal armed robbery of a Korean market, violence is cruelly graphic. “In this instance, the film succeeds in painting a disturbing picture of violence, one in which the characters’ lack of remorse, rather than stylistic convention, shapes and colors the horror of the image. ” Although most of the violence is filmed realistically and unfolds in real time, the Hughes can’t seem to resist stylizing some of the more important narrative events.
Thus, while the robbery introduces violence, O-Dog’s shooting of the Korean market owner is shown directly only further into the story, when black and white images of the store’s stolen surveillance video are played and replayed for the entertainment of Caine, O-Dog, and their friends. While an innovative means of conveying action, the video becomes nothing more than a diversion. While it builds tension and a false sense of foreboding, nothing comes of it; the video never connects directly to the film’s later events. The next scenes are of the Watts riots in 1965.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a new age in race relations appeared to begin. But the states acted quickly to circumvent the new federal law. California reacted with Proposition 14, which moved to block the fair housing components of the Civil Rights Act. This, and other acts, created a feeling of injustice and despair in the inner cities. On August 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles provided the spark that lit the fire of those incensed feelings. The riots lasted for six days, leaving 34 dead, over a thousand people injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and hundreds of buildings destroyed.
The Watts riots are extremely important in this film and are shown to illustrate and symbolize the oppression of the African American race, which was taken to an extreme during the Civil Rights Movement of this era. The directors use these clips from the Watts riots to stimulate the audience and to make them think more deeply about not only the scenes and occurrences of the film, but of all films and all instances relating to colonization and the oppression of the African American race as a whole. Menace II Society is a coming of age film detailing the summer after its protagonist, Caine, graduates from high school.
This is Caine’s story, made literal through the film’s use of voice-over narration to convey his point of view. In this narration, Caine repeatedly questions his actions and seemingly makes a decision, only to oppose that decision through his actions that follow, without offering any explanation. Menace II Society also strives, with varying degrees of success, to break from traditional and generic depictions of violence. Introduced in flashback when he murders a man in front of his young son in their home, Caine’s father initiates his son into a life of crime.
After his death, Caine’s father figure becomes Pernell, and serves as Caine’s criminal mentor and surrogate father until a life term in prison limits his daily influence. While responsibility for Caine’s welfare also falls into his grandparents’ hands and home, their attempts (especially his grandfather’s) to set him straight are disregarded. Caine can neither accept his grandfather’s religious beliefs nor respond when his grandfather poses the pivotal question, “Don’t you care whether you live or die? ” Caine’s former teacher, Mr.
Butler, also attempts to intervene, suggesting that Caine get out of the hood before he gets into any more trouble. Mr. Butler, himself a father of Sharif, an ex-knucklehead and now a Muslim convert, is only a minor character. The intervention scene set in Mr. Butler’s classroom motivates Caine to reflect upon his life, but the effect of Mr. Butler’s words, like that of Caine’s grandfather, is only momentary. Mr. Butler says critical words that every character in the film seems to be living by, yet somehow cannot put them to good use. Mr. Butler tells Caine, “Being a black man in America isn’t easy.
The hunt is on, and you’re the prey. All I’m saying is… All I’m saying is… Survive! All right? ” Caine listens to Mr. Butler, but as his previous and future actions illustrate, he doesn’t really hear. Caine says himself that advice like this “goes in one ear and out the other. ” In a film in which relationships among men are founded on violence, it is no coincidence that Caine’s father and Pernell influence Caine in the most pervasive ways. Rather than standing for the son’s salvation, these fathers only make Caine’s downfall inevitable.
With all influential father figures either dead or behind bars, the unprepared Caine must adopt the role of father when Pernell accepts Caine’s relationship with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), Pernell’s former lover and the mother of his young son Tony. Pernell gives his blessing, as Ronnie and Caine attempt to move out of the hood and to Atlanta, and Caine comes of age, accepting responsibility for Ronnie, Tony, and himself. Conducted through prison glass and telephones, the scene suggests the possibility that Caine has learned from Pernell’s mistakes and now can halt the history of self-destruction into which he was born and raised.
But this possibility is quickly negated at the going-away party for Ronnie, where Caine attacks a man in front of Tony, a reinforcement of the violent scene from Caine’s childhood. In this sense, the film suggests that the only legacy Caine or Tony can inherit is one of violence and self-destruction. Women in the film are almost totally excluded from the story. The only exception in Menace II Society is Ronnie, who is included precisely because she stands above or outside of the environment around her, as suggested by her characterization and the spaces she occupies.
Ronnie is an important character in the film. Shot in soft focus and with soft lighting, in contrast to the harsher realities of Caine’s world, Ronnie and her house become Caine’s only safe haven. Within this space, “Ronnie’s subdued dress and practical manner sustain Caine in a way his own mother never could. ” Ronnie’s role as nurturer and protector emerges through her strong desire to shield her son and Caine from guns, drugs, prison, and death. In this respect, Ronnie represents Caine’s only hope for survival.
Within this survival with Ronnie is the promise of escape; Caine will break away from his life of crime by escaping to Atlanta with Ronnie. Ronnie also represents, in a sense, the New Negro. She will not settle for a life of violence and crime for herself and her son. She continues her education and gets a job in Atlanta, where she plans to move with Tony and Caine. She is a character who clearly is not confused in the fact that she wants a better life and will not settle for life in the ghetto. In addition to Ronnie are the typical “homegirls,” and a few almost silent appearances by Caine’s grandmother.
The grandmother, even though with only a few lines in a few scenes, represents the mammy. She is mostly reserved and quiet and lets her husband make the decisions and do the talking. The only other woman who factors into the film is Ilena, the mother of Caine’s unborn child. Completely opposite of Ronnie through her blatant sexuality, Ilena causes Caine’s downfall and foils his and Ronnie’s attempt to start a new life. The men in the film seem to “take care” of all problems, even though most of the pivotal problems involve the women in the film.
This sheltering of the women last up until the last scene when Caine is gunned down by Ilena’s cousin in revenge for dumping Ilena and abandoning his unborn child. The audience only sees men solving problems and taking care of business as the women reside in the background. Just as Ronnie is off-screen when the imprisoned Pernell gives Caine his blessing, Ilena is also absent from the action, even at this moment when she functions so centrally. Instead, the relationship is mediated through a violent exchange between men, Caine and her cousin.
As this instance illustrates, the absence of women only unveils the threat they represent: a life in the hood, unwanted pregnancy, enforced responsibility and death. Another character who represents the New Negro is Sharif. Although he does not find his new attitude in literature, music or films, he finds himself in the philosophy of the Nation of Islam. His newfound religion helps him see something better, something bigger beyond the ghetto and he and Stacy are going to move to Kansas in pursuit of a better life, thus migrating away from the oppression.
Whether the Hughes brothers intended to make Caine the sacrificial victim is questionable and in their attempt to make a dark, violent film, they used any means necessary to arrive unintentionally at a conventional and confused conclusion. “Caine’s punishment’ is wholly in keeping with Classical Hollywood narratives, thus attaching contradictory meanings to his death. ” On one hand, the film, through its reworking of both traditional and generic narrative conventions, says something different about Caine’s situation and about the real situation of many African-American men in the inner city.
But, on the other hand, the film doesn’t say anything different, for it sometimes reuses already overused images of violence to make its main points, images that Hollywood has supplied for decades. “By not taking into account the post-Watts history of the hood, the Los Angeles Police Department’s brutal methods of fighting inner city crime, the film’s conclusion falls prey to the very forces it appears to be fighting, rendering earlier footage of the 1965 Watts Rebellion as nothing more than stylized, historical lip service.
Caine is the main character in Menace II Society and grows up in a typical way of those coming of age in a ghetto. Caine was brought up in a drug filled home; his father was a drug dealer, and his mother was a heroin addict. His name even connotes drugs, as it is slang for the drug cocaine. Caine first saw someone being shot when he was just a child, as shown in early scenes in the film. Following this, his father is murdered in a fixed drug deal, and his mother overdoses and dies.
Because Caine has no one respectable to look up to or rely on, he gets support from his friends, O-Dog, Pernell, Sharif, Stacy and Doc. These friends, for the most part, are influential to Caine, but not necessarily in a good way. They only instigate violence, which we see Caine struggle to not be a part of, but eventually gets sucked into, for he sees no other way to survive. The tragedy of Caine’s life is that he cannot stand back a little and get a wider view, see what alternatives are available. He adopts street values based on a corruption of the word “respect.
He wants respect but has done nothing to deserve it. For him, “respect” is the product of intimidation: If you back down because you fear him, you “respect” him. The Hughes’ tell Caine’s story without making him seem either the hero or victim; he is presented more as a typical example. The audience is not asked to sympathize with him, but to a degree they do. It is clear that, given the realities of the society in which he is raised, Caine’s fate is predetermined. Caine has qualities reflective of Frantz Fanon’s psychiatry of a victim of colonization.
Fanon believes that there are four steps that victims of colonization go through. Caine tries to find himself throughout the film, as he is constantly torn between good and bad, right and wrong. In this sense, he takes on a fragmented consciousness, and becomes just like his colonizer: violent, angry and ruthless. He also experiences internalized anger, which in turn leads to self-destructive behavior. These behaviors begin as destructive to others: robberies, murders, fights, but lead to behavior that ends up hurting Caine: he is shot, beaten up and eventually murdered.
Another important character in Menace II Society is O-Dog. O-Dog is the first person we see murder anyone in the film when he kills the Korean convenience store owners. O-Dog represents the Big Black Buck in this film, as he is oversexed, violent and seems to have zero compassion for others. The mere utterance of words that insult him and his way of life result in murder. When Caine introduces O-Dog, he says, “Now O-Dog was the craziest nigga alive. America’s nightmare: young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.
By saying this, Caine is saying that it is hard enough to be black and get respect from “America,” of course meaning white people, especially when you don’t care about anyone’s well being. O-Dog is the menace to society in terms of what the white man sees through his character. He is what society does not want around and is fearful of everyday. The first major theme in Menace II Society that clearly gives vent to the issues of race and class is the use of an almost all-black cast of characters. By choosing not to show any whites living in the ghetto, the Hughes’ are showing that only blacks are suffering in this way.
The only white characters in the film are the white man who shows Chauncey a car, and the police officers who beat up O-Dog and Caine. These police officers are representative of the colonizer and the colonial project. Though they commit a small crime by abusing these characters, this symbolizes the larger aspects of colonization and the Civil Rights Movement. Other than these short instances where white characters are seen, almost every character, from young to old, male to female, is black in the film, and in this respect, a white colonizer is not specifically represented.
The colonizer in this film is larger than just one person; it is the system of colonization as a whole that causes every character in the film to be oppressed in some sense of the word. The endless cycle of violence is another main theme of the film. The characters who act as role models for the developing youth directly affect the actions of characters in this film. The violent surroundings they lived and grew up in were difficult to escape and made survival harder as time went on.
Movies based upon themes of the importance of role models, rely on the fact that role models are needed because “conditions in certain inner cities are hazardous to a child’s physical health, mental health, and social adjustment. ” Human life seems to have little value, as even petty disputes lead to callous murder. The third most important part of the film is the climactic final scene that shows Caine being riddled with bullets in a drive-by shooting. The scene’s cinematography is stylistic with the use of brilliant colors, bright lighting, and slow motion photography, prolonging the event and heightening tension.
While masterfully executed, such conventions nullify the effect of earlier straightforward, no-holds-barred depictions of violence. By virtue of its simplicity, an earlier carjacking scene, in which Caine’s cousin is killed, seems far more powerful than those scenes in which violence is stylized. ” Repeatedly stating their desire that violence works as a deterrent to hood audiences watching the film, the Hughes might have achieved their end more successfully had they consistently resisted the masterful, pleasurable, and familiar cinematography of violence.
This final scene is important because of its irony because through this scene, the film’s central paradox emerges which is that it is not enough for Caine to accept responsibility for those things he desires, but he must also take responsibility for his own actions. He has almost closed the violent chapter in his life, and gets so close to being able to move on, when all his chances and hopes are literally shot down. Not only does Caine die, but Sharif dies as well.
They were both on their way to starting their lives over, but past actions caught up with Caine, and unfortunately got Sharif as well. This shows that you cannot simply get away from your problems, and you cannot change overnight. Everything you do has a consequence, and sometimes those consequences end up hurting the innocent. The largest contribution Menace II Society has made is that it shows things the way they often are for residents in low-income neighborhoods such as Watts.
It gives no hope and does not end on a happy note, yet the film is not negative for depicting these situations truthfully. As opposed to some films that merely touch on violence and show fictitious renderings of poverty-stricken ghetto life and the actions that are necessary to get by, the Hughes’ show how real and true ghetto life can be without a sugar coating. The honesty in Menace II Society makes it different from every other film, thus setting the bar higher for all films to come in their portrayals of African Americans in inner city ghettos.