Where Manhood Outweighs Humanity


June 24, 1993|By GREGORY P. KANE

"Menace II Society,'' the superb debut movie by novice directors Albert and Allen Hughes, is no ''Boyz N The Hood.'' Comparisons to the 1990 film directed by John Singleton have been made, but are misguided.

''Boyz N The Hood'' received considerable acclaim, much of it from well-meaning whites, who, I suggest, may not have known any better. Mr. Singleton's film was at times puerile, preachy and ultimately annoying. The sexism of its leading male characters was treated as trite and cute. In ''Menace II Society,'' such attitudes are portrayed as self-destructive and deadly. ''Boyz N The Hood'' had as its central theme the notion that black boys get into trouble when left to be raised by their mommies. The Hughes brothers give us no such simplistic nonsense.

The father of the main character in ''Menace'' is a sociopath, a drug dealer who bashes his drug-addict wife. In one revealing and gritty scene, he confronts an associate who owes him money as they play cards. Caine watches as his father demands the money. The associate waxes indignant, refuses to pay and then demands defiantly, ''Whatcha gon' do about it?''

Every black man in the audience knows what Caine's father is going to do about it. Given the psyche endemic to the black American male macho culture, there's really only one way for the scene to end. Caine's father pulls a gun and repeats the demand for the money. The associate, not to be outdone on the Richter scale of macho stupidity, dares him to shoot and escalates the manhood challenge by suggesting that Caine's father perform an act of homosexual copulation on him. The insult brings four or five bullets pumped summarily into the chest of the associate.

Thus does the father introduce the son to the code of conduct required when affronts to manhood, real or perceived, are encountered. Thus do the Hughes brothers introduce the viewer to as gripping and compelling a film as we are likely to see about the reality and pathology of urban black macho culture. The pathology does not afflict all black men, but it certainly affects each of us, and the Hughes brothers have given us a superb portrait of how it operates.

We are spared little in this film. All the negative aspects of urban black macho culture are covered -- the violence; the herd mentality that leads to it; the sexism; the misogyny. Those men not seen as sufficiently macho or violent are given the ultimate insult: being compared to women. In one scene Caine and a homey, O-Dog, are about to do a drive-by shooting to avenge the death of Caine's cousin. Caine frets that he doesn't want to do the drive-by if ''some old people or little kids might get hurt.'' O-Dog tells him he's ''acting like a bitch.'' Concern for innocent lives -- children, senior citizens or anyone not caught up in the pathology of macho violence -- is viewed as effeminate.

That is not merely a fictionalized scenario created by Hollywood writers. We can imagine such conversations happening in reality just before any of the numerous shootouts that have wounded or killed innocent bystanders from 8 months to 80 years old. Defending manhood, upholding honor, avenging slights -- these take precedence over epicene matters like caring whether or not the bullets fired actually hit their intended target.

It is not a pretty picture the Hughes brothers paint. It will offend some blacks who will fret that it will perpetuate the stereotype of young black men as homicidal, gun-toting maniacs. Already there have been complaints that the film has no positive images, that it's just another movie to which groups of homeboys can go and revel in their incorrectness. But the Hughes brothers have at least three arguments in their defense.

The first is that any movie as superbly directed, written and acted as ''Menace II Society'' may shatter as many stereotypes as it perpetuates.

The second is that ''Menace'' is constructed in such a way that the adherents of the homeboy culture can't gloat over the negative behavior of the film's protagonists for long. Each act, no matter how innocuous, is shown to have an undesirable consequence.

When Caine gets a girl pregnant and tells her it is her problem, some of the homey brigade could be heard laughing out loud. When Caine lies dying from a hail of bullets resulting from a series of event triggered by his despicable act, the homey brigade was shockingly and pleasantly silent. You couldn't hear a peep from them.

But central to the Hughes brothers' defense is that good artists don't worry about stereotypes or negative images. Richard Wright could never have written ''Native Son'' if he had worried about how blacks would react to the character of Bigger Thomas. Wright himself said as much in the introduction to the novel. Director Spike Lee reacted to the criticism that his films did not depict the drug problem by making it a subplot in his film ''Jungle Fever.'' The result was slop.

Allen and Albert Hughes have given us good art about a serious subject. They are to be commended.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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