First and foremost, Menace II Society is a movie for white people.
These aren’t my words. These are the words of Albert Hughes, who codirected the movie with his twin brother, Allen. In several interviews, Albert has mentioned how he and his brother made the movie to let white folk know what was really going on in the inner city. While some white people got the message (George F. Will sang the movie’s praises in a Washington Post op-ed whose headline called it “violence therapy”), Black people saw it and dug it anyway. As has been proved in American cinema history time and time again, if studios release films made by African Americans, about African Americans, and starring African Americans, African Americans will go see them. Especially if they are as brutal, blunt, and, yes, Black as Menace.
Released in late spring 1993, Menace, the Hughes brothers’ debut feature, was made on a $3.4 million budget and ended up grossing nearly $30 million, becoming one of the more surprising hits of that year. It was quite the jarring, exhilarating addition to the hood-movie genre, a genre that was otherwise already beginning to show signs of been there, done that. In the two years before Menace, multiplexes had already been bombarded with such in-the-ghetto dramas as Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City, Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice, Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood—which became the most financially successful and acclaimed (earning two Oscar nominations) out of all of them. For its part, Menace came on the scene with a rude, snarling, fuck-you attitude about the truths it was aiming to tell—not unlike that of its two young directors.
Coming out of the gate as straight-up enfants terribles, with several hip-hop videos and a 1990 student short called The Drive By (a black-and-white drama about gang violence in Los Angeles that was a test run for Menace) under their belts, the Hughes boys—just breaking into their twenties—made a movie that aimed to be the antithesis of Singleton’s hopeful film. (One of their videos, for 2Pac’s “If My Homie Calls,” features a cameo from Singleton.) While Singleton created an inner-city Los Angeles full of brown-skinned folk who know right from wrong (Ice Cube’s Doughboy may have a gun tucked in his waistband, but he never pops that thang unless he has to), most of Menace’s LA setting is populated by remorseless killers, nihilistic outlaws who don’t lose a wink of sleep after taking someone’s life. (To help make sure everything was authentic, the brothers conducted interviews with South Central gang members before filming.)
“What the Hughes brothers make clear is that the hood may be a place where guys can collectively beat down on a dude, but it is also a place where people do live.”
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