Conventional wisdom has Hollywood discovering "traditional values," ratcheting down the violence quotient and rolling out PG movies to capture the family market. Exhibits A through F: Six of the current top-10 money-making movies are rated PG or PG-13.
Yet in their happy midst sits "Menace II Society," as sad and savage a depiction of urban violence as you'll ever see, currently the ninth best-selling movie in the country. Without box-office stars or advance hype and promotional tie-ins, the R-rated "Menace" has become one of those rare movies that has everyone from George Will to your next-door neighbor talking:
Is its portrayal of alienated, trigger-prone black youth realistic or stereotypical? With so much real-life violence, who needs this much reel-life violence as well? And should African-American movies be judged by different standards when it comes to inflammatory images?
"It was violent, but it demonstrated what happens every day. That's what it is now in the neighborhood -- drugs, money and killing. Why should they hide that?" says Carrie Powell, 57, a Baltimore woman who saw the movie last weekend.
"To be frank, I think it was a little excessive," says Cornell Morsell, 37, also of Baltimore. "It is something happening in the streets now, but I think it [perpetuates] a stereotype that that's all black people can do -- shoot, kill and sell drugs."
"Menace II Society," was made by 21-year-old African-American twin brothers and features two Baltimore actors, Jada Pinkett and Charles "Roc" Dutton. It's about Caine, a basically decent kid who, nonethe less, gets swallowed into the world of drive-by shootings and eye-for-an-eye killings. Unlike movies such as "The Godfather" series, there's nothing romantic or balletic about its killing scenes; furthermore, audiences generally have not cheered those scenes, as they have in previous movies like "Boyz N the Hood," but seem rather stunned into silence.
Perhaps because of that thought-provoking quality, "Menace II Society" has drawn praise from the most unlikely quarters. The conservative Mr. Will, for example, called it an important film that could help convince the country that its "peacekeeping" missions might better be directed at home rather than in Somalia or Macedonia.
High praise from Medved
And, even more surprisingly, it merited a "this is a knockout movie" blurb from Michael Medved, the critic whose influential book, "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values" (HarperCollins, 1992), helped spark the current sentiment in the industry that filmmakers need to produce more family fare.
"It manages to do something different from the other South Central L.A. movies. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year," Mr. Medved said in a recent telephone interview from Chicago, where he films his "Sneak Previews" show for PBS. "I'm more disturbed by the violence in 'Dennis the Menace' than the violence in 'Menace II Society.' "
Frequently interrupting his discourse on movie mayhem to tell his 4-year-old daughter to "put all the dollies away" or "brush your teeth -- now," Mr. Medved says he's not anti-violence as a matter of course, but anti-gratuitous violence, especially in movies geared toward youngsters.
He took his 6-year-old to see the PG-rated "Dennis the Menace" and was appalled by its "sadistic," "Home Alone"-style violence in which Dennis indeed menaces a burglar, torturing and setting him afire.
Still, he does see signs that Hollywood is responding to the call for less-violent movies. While his book can take some of the credit, the bottom line is also a factor: A recent study by an entertainment industry consultant found PG and PG-13 movies are more likely to turn a profit than their more violent counterparts.
At a meeting of movie operators and distributors in March, for example, Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton jumped on the bandwagon and drew applause when he called for more family-oriented movies. Practicing what he preached, Columbia's big summer movie, "Last Action Hero," was purposely toned down to give it a PG-13 rather than the usual R rating that past Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles have received. (The movie, however, is a box-office bomb, although some observers attribute that not so much to the PG-13 rating as to its problematic plot line.)
Never abandon violence
The success of "Menace II Society" shows that, despite Hollywood's current leanings toward family-oriented movies, filmmakers will never abandon violent movies -- especially if they're both artistically and financially attractive, one movie executive believes.