I watched Menace II Society just a couple days after watching Goodfellas, and, damn, do the two complement each other. They’re very much alike in some ways — the abrupt violence and depiction of an indulgent culture that devalues human life in the name of swagger, for example — but in some ways couldn’t be more different.
Menace II Society tells the story of Caine, a young Black man in the poor part of a post-Rodney King Los Angeles neighborhood. While fundamentally decent and thoughtful (unlike his violently impulsive, borderline psychotic, friend O-Dog), he’s surrounded by a world that devalues Black bodies and embraces drugs and violence.
As Caine prepares to graduate high school, his friend O-Dog murders two Korean liquor store owners while they are buying drinks one day. It’s a harrowing opening scene that not only sets a bleak tone, but leaves a shadow over everything that comes — it feels inevitable that Caine’s association with the violent act will bring him down.
At a crossroads, Caine finds himself pulled in different directions — the spiral to crime, but also some possible ways out, symbolized by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Ronnie and her son, whom Caine is close to. Pinkett Smith has movie star charisma (and beauty); it’s no surprise she went on to a long career based on this performance.
The story is equal parts intimate portrait (courtesy an excellent voiceover by Caine) and operatic tragedy, giving the film a visceral tone of despair. And yet it strings out a thread of hope to the last minute with a grim and symbolic ending — the cycle of violence perpetuated.
The film is well shot, with lots of striking colors and lighting while never feeling garish or losing a sense of naturalism. The Hughes Brothers could have opted for a dingy, overly-brown look to emphasize the sense of nihilism, but I’m glad they didn’t. They made the film fun and interesting to look at, which highlights the elements of vibrant life underneath the darkness, like grass poking through the cracks of a sidewalk.
The cast is strong overall, though Tyrin Turner as Caine is a bit of a mixed bag. His acting is kind of stagey and missing a strong sense of interiority. While I don’t think this was intentional, it at least emphasizes that Caine doesn’t yet know what kind of person he is, and is “trying on” different identities to see if they fit.
Ultimately, the Hughes brothers have made an extremely personal and affecting version of a coming-of-age gangster film. It’s a dark vision of a reality that so many poor people of color were living in the early 90s — and I don’t think I even need to say that it still feels relevant in 2021.
And that’s how Menace II Society separates itself from Goodfellas in my mind — whereas Goodfellas (and many great Mafia stories) are about an organization that’s special and powerful and selective about its membership, Menace II Society is the opposite: Its characters were born into this life due to no choice of their own. They’re just Black and poor in a society that diminishes both of those things. They have little way out and no support of any institution. Just a random bullshit circle of broken families, poverty, crime, imprisonment, and repeat.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100