We don’t normally refer to these images, outright, as lies. Narrative filmmaking isn’t meant to be beholden to a strict accounting of history. But what film does, at its best, is tell the truth through the creation of myth. That is, it starts from an honest accounting of an event/idea/emotion, and no matter what world it goes on to build, it keeps that truth at its core. Griffith’s film shows the failure of tying an emotional honesty to historical inaccuracy. For all of its pioneering editing techniques and use of music, the narrative doesn’t hold because nothing he depicts, save Lincoln’s assassination, has even a bit of truth to it, no matter how much Griffith felt that it did.
But he wasn’t alone. The Birth of a Nation was a massive commercial success. White Americans bought into the myth because it confirmed their racist notions of black people. Black Americans were put in the position of attempting to defend themselves against these myths, on the screen and off.
On the screen, black actors chose, when they could, to portray characters that defied the myth. Throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, black performers like Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Earle Hyman, and Isabel Sanford made names for themselves by refusing the minstrel-made roles available to their predecessors and opting for films they felt offered more complexity, humanity, and dignity to black characters. While it constitutes a noble cause, this often meant the roles could feel sanitized; instead of reaching for an honest humanity, black actors needed to embody their most upstanding selves, lest they lend any credence to the growing body of racist lies that kept the myth of black inferiority humming.
A new generation of filmmakers emerged in reaction to these sanitized images, choosing to create larger-than-life myths that grew out of the worlds their dignified contemporaries dared not touch. The blaxploitation era of filmmakers rooted their stories in the dark realities of black life. It’s not to suggest that the stories of the previous era were untrue, but their unwillingness to stray too far from respectable depictions of black life meant they were put at a distance to the truth of most black Americans. Shaft, Super Fly, Foxy Brown, The Mack, Black Caesar, Trouble Man, Cleopatra Jones, and a host of other films of the 1970s, typically helmed by black writers and directors, created black superheroes out of controversial figures. Were we meant to celebrate pimps, drug dealers, outlaws, and killers because their ultimate objective was defeating The Man? It’s a question still not totally settled, though it must be said that an even greater flaw of these films, with very few exceptions, is that they center around an idea of reclaiming masculinity from racist myth-making by trafficking in sexist myth-making. Combating one lie with another only compounds the lie.
It speaks to the general unfairness of racism that black filmmakers are even put in this position. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction,” Toni Morrison said in an address from 1975, “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.” Art should help to explain our reason for being. Where black art is concerned, the distraction of racism has meant that stories about black people are only ever allowed to contend with the struggle to undo racist lies. There has never emerged a consensus on the best approach.
In the early 1990s, a generation of filmmakers, inspired by hip-hop, and more specifically gangsta rap (itself inspired by the blaxploitation era of film and music), created a subgenre of “hood films,” a term deployed derisively and descriptively depending on your feeling toward them. Beginning with John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood, “hood films” became a place for depictions of black male life in the post–Civil Rights era of Reaganomics and the crack epidemic. Their major themes were gangbanging, drug-related violence, police brutality, poverty, and survival.
Boyz is the most celebrated of these films; writer/director John Singleton earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director (he was the first African-American director to be nominated in this category, and remains one of only four) and Best Original Screenplay, and in 2002 it was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
But it isn’t the best “hood film” from that period. That honor belongs to Menace II Society, the 1993 directorial debut of Allen and Albert Hughes. The two films are, fairly or not, forever linked and will be endlessly compared (and I’m obviously part of the problem). But Menace, even as the superior of the two, will always lose out.
It’s not surprising, given that the overall message of Boyz fits right alongside the kind of liberal politics that emerged during the 1980s and ’90s. The film opens with title cards with statistics about black men killing black men, and then none too subtly zeroes in on bright red “STOP” sign. Its chief concern is “black-on-black” violence (narrowly understood here as black male gun violence committed against other black males), reflecting similar concerns from the Civil Rights establishment and politicians that would soon be validating the fear of “superpredators.” This alone isn’t condemnable, but Boyz hammers home a non-solution to the problem of intraracial violence with an earnestness that often has the look and feel of a sophisticated after-school special. (Eazy-E may have largely meant this as a diss to his former N.W.A. groupmate, Ice Cube, who starred as the drug-dealing/gangbanging Doughboy, but he wasn’t wrong.) Nearly a dozen times, Singleton gets close-up on a character’s face while they deliver lectures instead of dialogue, and an overly sentimental jazz saxophone plays in the background. The worst offense is when Furious Styles, played by Laurence Fishburne, says to his son Tre, “Your friends, they don’t have anybody looking after them. You gonna see how they turn out.” It’s not so much foreshadowing as it is major spoiler: Tre’s friends will not survive South Central Los Angeles because they are young black men who do not have fathers.
There are some more radical moments sprinkled in (a 10-year-old boy flips off a “Reagan/Bush ’84” campaign poster; an older Tre, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., rails against black men joining the army), but it is suffused with the conservative notion of the return of the vaunted patriarch with the ability to fix what ails black communities.
Menace doesn’t have this problem. It opens on Caine and O-Dog, played by Tyrin Turner and Larenz Tate respectively, entering a Korean-owned convenience store to purchase malt liquor. They’re followed by one of the store owners, which leads to a profanity-laced back and forth about whether or not they intend to pay for their 40 ounces. They do, but just as they’re exiting, the man who rang them up mutters under his breath, “I feel sorry for your mother,” at which point O-Dog, the more volatile of the two, approaches him with his gun out and shoots him as if the ability to pull the trigger were second nature. While Caine panics, O-Dog takes the other owner in the back to retrieve the security camera footage of shooting, and then shoots her as well. Tape in hand, he goes back behind the register and takes whatever money he can find. Caine and O-Dog run away before any police arrive.
From the jump, Menace puts us into a world of anti-blackness and asks us to consider the consequences. This first scene plays out almost as a revenge fantasy for the real-life killing of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old black girl killed by Soon Ja Du, then a 51-year-old convenience store owner, after it was assumed that Harlins was stealing an orange juice.
What follows is the story of how a gangster is created. The Hughes Brothers crib heavily from Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas, from the use of voice-over to the sweeping camera movements, but they also share narrative DNA: each tells the story of the rise, and fall, of a gangster. But unlike Henry Hill, who reflects early on that “as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Caine has no such desire. For him, an 18-year-old black boy growing up in 1980s–’90s Watts, the choice to become a gangster is not a choice at all. It’s the only reality available to him.
Before we get into Caine’s life, we see footage of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the aftermath of which, we’re told, is when the drugs started flowing into the black community, and with the drugs increased violence. We’re transported to the late 1970s, where we witness Caine witnessing his father kill a man for the first time. This is followed by footage of Los Angeles erupting in a rebellion unlike any they had seen since Watts, in the wake of the verdict that allowed four LAPD officers to walk free after their vicious beating of Rodney King. And then there’s Caine, listless in a high school classroom, more interested in the beeper that connects him to the world of drugs he inherited from his father and everyone else around him.
In an essay for Artforum from 1993, Arthur Jafa recalls telling a friend, “[Menace II Society] makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby Show.” The level of violence alone is enough to make that distinction. The Hughes Brothers’ camera repeatedly takes us right up to where we don’t want to be. When Caine is shot for the first time and goes into shock, we are on the ground with him, as though we’re coughing up the same blood. Bullets have consequences.
But what Jafa was also getting at is the preciousness of Boyz in comparison to Menace. Boyz n the Hood’s sense of tragedy is meant as a cautionary tale to black men making poor choices. We grieve because those choices mean the wrong people sometimes get shot and killed, or because good people get mixed up in bad situations created by bad people.
In Menace, tragedy is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness. Contrary to Roger Ebert’s assessment at the time, the message of Menace is not that “[m]any victims of street violence are a great loss to society, their potential destroyed by a bankrupt value system”; nor does it avoid blaming “the easy target of white racism” for the level of violence depicted. It’s possible that the esteemed film critic drew these conclusions because it is only recently that black filmmakers have been (somewhat) freed of the expectation that their work explicitly state its own purpose. But by creating a world in which violence and death are constant occurrences, where murder is undertaken without much thought, and everyone, no matter their level of goodness and respectability, can be subject to it, Menace pushes us to consider how the environment became rotten, rather than the individuals.
When Caine’s grandfather asks him, “Do you care if you live or die?” he pauses for an awkward amount of time before finally answering, limply, “I don’t know.” He is attempting to figure out how his life could have any meaning given the circumstances under which he’s been reared.
In Boyz, Tre is the only one of his friends to survive because he had a father to teach him how to be a man and make good decisions, the ultimate message of the movie. In Menace, Caine dies, but he dies alongside his friend Sharif, a Muslim convert with a strong father figure. No one is protected by their individual choices. Tre, we are told at the end of Boyz, leaves South Central to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, escaping the horrors he has witnessed. In Menace, Caine’s love interest, Ronnie, played by Jada Pinkett, suggests he come with her to Atlanta where she’s found a new job. He responds: “You act like Atlanta ain’t in America.”
There is a hopelessness to Menace that could be a turn-off, but that hopelessness is precisely its strength. It’s an honest emotion, but unlike with The Birth of a Nation, it is not born of a false reality. It does, however, suffer from the great flaw of its blaxpoitation-era progenitors, where it allows the stories of black women to recede into the background as it narrows in on black men, rendering every black woman character flat and uninteresting. But Menace II Society’s greatest contribution is that it unburdens itself from struggling against the racist lies of cinematic history. Caine is not dignified. He is not respectable. But he isn’t a heroic gangster, either. He is no more than a black boy trying to survive in the United States, and that becomes reason enough to tell his story. Of course, Menace is subject to its own bits of hokey sermonizing, the worst offender being Charles S. Dutton’s admonishment, “The hunt is on! And you’re the prey.” But the sermons are not saviors, because Menace doesn’t believe any of those exist. Twenty-five years ago it was bold to be so bleak. It was a different kind of black filmmaking, to neither offer solutions for defeating racist lies, nor for the film to position itself as one of those solutions. And black artists are better off for it.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and a fellow at The Nation Institute.