An incomplete picture of life on the streets

WILEY A. HALL

June 15, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

The streets seemed dark and menacing when we left the movie theater. The car was several blocks away. We walked for a while in brooding silence.

"Well," I said at last with a sigh and a shrug.

"Well, well," responded my friend.

"Well, well, well," I said, and I shrugged again.

And there, the matter should have ended, for what else could one say? We had been to see "Menace II Society," a disturbing look at crime in the inner city; at the kill-or-be-killed mindset of teens engaged in the gangster lifestyle; at their chilling indifference to life. The movie opened with the cold-blooded slaying of two Korean grocers. From there, the violence escalated, the body count climbed.

The movie made me feel frustrated and sad and angry -- a complex mixture of emotions, difficult to express and all but impossible to share. That's why I could only shrug as we left the theater and hoped that we didn't run into such kids as we stepped into the dark menace of the city.

But since that night, I have been engaged in a running debate about "Menace II Society." People tell me that the movie is an authentic depiction of the rage and pain of the black community. They say it chronicles the difficult, sometimes lethal choices that young black adults are forced to confront. They say it shows how some of these young people fail to see the alternatives, and how they make the wrong choices, and how they doom themselves.

And I agree that the movie does all that.

But I argue that such an outlook is not enough for me. "Menace II Society" shows the pain and the rage and the brutal indifference to life, but is that all there is? Does pain define the black community? Does rage? Does brutality?

"Menace II Society" is an authentic movie, but is it wise? Is it true?

"It is true for some," argues one of my colleagues. "This is their story, this is a movie about the streets."

"But it is not true for others," I insist. "And without them, this movie about the streets is incomplete. It is authentic, but not accurate."

"Menace II Society" is symptomatic of a sad trend. It is one of a string of recent movies, rap songs, and music videos that purport to show us life in the " 'hood" -- the anger, the despair, the hopelessness. Most of these movies and songs are created by young artists; twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes were 21 when they directed this bleak story about their own neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles.

Such filmmakers and recording artists think they are telling us something new. They think their generation has experienced heart-aches that the rest of us cannot understand.

In fact, pain is not a generational thing. All of us have felt it; all of us have flirted with despair. But most of us refuse to wallow in it. Most of us prefer to define ourselves by something more positive.

This genre of " 'hood" art defines black neighborhoods through the narrow issue of crime, which is too narrow. All these works do is reinforce stereotypes about blacks.

And, worst of all, the works lack a sense of mission, a moral compass; they try to tell us how things are but they fail to offer a vision of how things could be.

A positive vision does exist in the " 'hood." It is embraced by people who come from the same background, and experience the same anger and pain, as the gangsters. Why are the thugs different? What insights about their choices can these young artists offer?

There also are people -- men and women, the young and the old -- who are working to improve inner-city life with as much fervor as the gangsters have for destroying it. Why do the good people bother? What feeds their hope?

As I've said, to ignore this side of black life is to give an incomplete picture of the " 'hood." The narrow view plays into stereotypes and fears. It excuses a "David Duke solution" to social problems.

"Man, you're from a different generation," says another defender of the movie. "These artists aren't trying to send some feel-good message about the future. They aren't about anything but making money."

That may be true about the perpetrators of this " 'hood art." And that is why I consider them a menace II society.

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