Confession: Until recently, I had never seen “Menace II Society,” the directorial debut from the Hughes Brothers (“Dead Presidents,” “From Hell,” “The Book of Eli”).
Had I seen it in 1993 at the age of 10: I like to think I would have appreciated the film’s refusal to glamorize crime and its efforts to capture desperate life in South Central Los Angeles. (Two years later, one of my favorite movies was the chaotic, racially charged and eventually violent tale of students at a California college, “Higher Learning.”) “Menace” is seen through Caine (Tyrin Turner) and, feeling a lack of other options, his progressive transition toward the violent behavior exemplified daily by his best friend Kevin (Chicago native Larenz Tate). That said, I don’t know how much I would have processed the realities of the situation.
Now: Twenty years and countless crime movies later, “Menace II Society” remains chilling. Kevin’s detachment from concern for anyone not in his inner circle, and his related glee at watching and sharing a tape of him shooting a convenience store clerk, stuck with me as much as anything in the film, which focuses primarily on violence in the community and the cycle of revenge that fuels shooting after shooting. It’s an unsentimental, often devastating movie, highlighted by excellent work from Tate (as a character Caine calls “America’s nightmare”) bearing little in common with his more compassionate but similarly hopeless character in the Hughes’ follow-up “Dead Presidents.”
Must be noted: When watching “Menace II Society” it’s impossible not to think about the fact that there were more than 500 homicides in Chicago in 2012. The film offers no solutions to the problems in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods, but it certainly makes you wonder, if you weren’t already, how much has been done to address issues documented in 1993.
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