A brutal but accurate 'Menace II Society'

Lisa Respers

June 21, 1993|By Lisa Respers

EVEN THOUGH I grew up in the city, crime was no something I really worried about until one muggy afternoon in June 1987. That was the day I learned that one of my childhood friends, Erin Keith Johnson, had been shot in the head at point-blank range. He was 19.

Ernie, as he was affectionately known, was killed by a 17-year-old youth after an argument during a rec basketball game at Carver Vocational Technical High School.

Before that day, violence was something I only heard or read about occasionally in passing. It had never touched me personally. As a teen-ager full of expectations and dreams, I was eager to race into my future, and I was certain that teen-agers lived forever.

But Ernie did die, and since then so have several other friends with whom I grew up in the Howard Park neighborhood of Baltimore. That is why I originally had no desire to see the movie "Menace II Society," which is now sparking so much controversy over its portrayal of life in the inner city.

My 18-year old brother, Gary, recently came home from seeing the movie and proclaimed it "harder than 'Boyz N the Hood.' " I wanted no part of viewing yet another representation of the inner-city violence that has claimed the lives of so many young African-Americans.

Yet eventually I did go see the movie. Maybe it was an impulse similar to the one that makes you slow down to look at a bad accident along the road. Or maybe it was the fact that the movie prompted my usually ambivalent little brother to discuss the dangers and fears of being a young, black male in America. Whatever it was, it drove me to sit in a darkened theater, and to be angry, horrified, disgusted and saddened.

The filmmakers, 21-year-old twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, thrust the audience into the brutal world of Caine, an inner-city black youth who is the child of a drug-dealer father and an addicted mother. The movie chronicles his descent into violence, beginning with his becoming an unwilling accomplice to murder.

The brutality of the film shocked me. Yet I was almost as disturbed by Wiley Hall's column on the movie ("An incomplete picture of life on the streets," June 15). Whereas I can still praise the film for its gritty realism, Mr. Hall asserts that the movie is essentially "authentic, but not accurate."

For me, "Menace II Society" is an all-too-accurate portrayal of life in the present-day inner city. As Baltimore's homicide rate climbs, the prison system overflows and the drug trade emerges as the biggest employer of young black men, "Menace II Society" captures the relentless horror on our city streets.

"It's accurate, all right," said one of my female friends as she pulled down her sock to show me the scar left by a 9-millimeter pistol slug, her badge of courage from the war on the streets. She got it one night sitting at a traffic light inside a Fourunner truck with her mother and her friend Kenny. The shooter mistook Kenny for someone else.

Of the current generation of inner-city youngsters' painful coming of age, Mr. Hall argues that "pain is not a generational thing." Perhaps not. But his generation didn't have to cope with AIDS, semiautomatic weapons and an inner-city drug culture so prevalent that at any time of day or night one can buy drugs as easily as one would pick up a cheeseburger from McDonald's.

I agree with Mr. Hall that pain does not define the black community. Pain is, however, an integral part of the black experience. The young men in the movie, like many of the young men in the streets today, redirect that pain into brutality.

Mr. Hall wonders why movies like "Menace II Society," rap songs and music videos don't embrace more "positive" images. To quote Naughty by Nature, a rap group that performs the "hood art" Mr. Hall deplores: "Say something positive? Well positive ain't where I live."

In fact, the movie does portray positive characters. Caine's grandfather is a religious man who offers Caine and his friends a way out from a life of crime if they will only turn to God. Similarly, one of Caine's "partners" who belongs to the Nation of Islam tries desperately to force his friends to see that their lives are headed for tragedy.

But the movie offers no pat answers. It merely lays out a set of circumstances and invites the audience to focus on the inevitable logic of what follows from them. Many, no doubt, would rather ignore the ugliness the film portrays. Others may want to latch on to whatever "positive" elements they can glean from the turmoil.

Sometimes I wish that I, too, could simply close my eyes and block it all out. But even with my eyes closed, I can still hear the reports of gunshots in the night.

Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in the Carroll County bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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