'Menace II Society' puts us, chillingly, into 'hood's violence

MIKE LITTWIN

June 25, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Idon't spend much time in what has come to be known as the 'hood. I don't live there. I don't shop there. I don't eat in restaurants there.

Most white people don't. Many African-American middle-class people don't.

I can guess at the reality of life there, but it's only a guess. What else could it possibly be?

I read. I study. I talk to friends, white and black. I listen to as much of the relevant music as I can stand. I watch the blasting-siren horrors of the 11 o'clock news. I know the grim statistics, freshly tallied from the killing fields.

And I go to movies, whose reality is often more real than life itself.

I saw "Menace II Society" the other day. The film has provoked controversy, particularly in the black community, for its brutally despairing description of life in the 'hood.

See it anyway. It will blow you away.

There are some good movies. There are many more bad movies. There are a few important movies, and this is one.

It is the story of Caine, an 18-year-old black male living in South Central L.A. In many ways, it's the familiar tale of youthful alienation; only these youths are fully armed and always ready to rock and roll.

Caine sees nothing for himself except what lies before him each day. Why should the young man, who lost a father to a gun and a mother to a needle, believe in a future? The streets he runs on literally run with blood.

At one point in the movie, Caine's grandfather asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies, and Caine honestly answers, "I don't know."

We meet Caine hanging with his psychopathic pal, O-Day, in a Korean-run grocery store. For no reason except that there doesn't need to be a reason, O-Day blows the Korean grocer away. And we watch from there as Caine -- though horrified by the casual killing, though not really a bad person -- slips almost inexorably into a world where there can be no end other than violence.

Critics of the film say it doesn't provide a true picture of life among the black, urban poor. They say it promotes the stereotype of young black males as predators. They say the film does young blacks an injustice when it offers an ending without even a glimmer of hope.

I'm sure "Menace" doesn't begin to tell the entire story of a society that is as complex and varied as any other. What movie can? What book can?

But why should it have to? If "Menace" is not the truth, it's a truth. It's truth as seen through the eyes of the Hughes brothers, wildly gifted 21-year-old black twins who directed the movie with a passion that chills.

How valid is their vision? I don't know, except that it's true enough to grab the viewer by the throat and never let go. It's a story that must be told and must be told by those who know it.

The brothers have said they made the movie to rub our noses in the violent landscape just outside our doors. If so, they have succeeded brilliantly.

They don't scare us so much as horrify us. Along the way, the movie suggests two unasked questions:

How can you be part of this carnage?

And if you're not part of it, how can you stand by and allow it to happen?

What makes the movie so powerful is that the questions are only implied. "Boyz N the Hood" was a more political, but less subversive and therefore less successful, movie. Where "Boyz" preached, "Menace" makes us watch.

We are pushed into Caine's world of guns and drugs and hopelessness and never get to leave its relentless cruelty. The Hughes brothers make no excuses for Caine. They offer no apologies either. They give him a way out, but we know, and Caine knows, he'll never take it.

Truth? The Hughes brothers set him in a place and time that

surely exists, and you're left to wonder how it can be made any different.

They want the Caines of the world to wonder and the rest of us to wonder, too.

Isn't that the essence of art? The violence in "Menace" seems as hard as the world in which it is set. It's as real as the headlines of slaughters on Greenmount Avenue or in Washington swimming pools.

I watched the film with an audience that was predominantly young, black and male. For much of the movie, some in the audience were goofing on the violent life in the punk world.

L By the end, though, all you could hear were pounding hearts.

I walked out of the theater shaken. It's the best recommendation I can give.

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