the better truth

the better truth

Monday, January 14, 2013

Menace II Society (1993)


One positive result of the LA riots is that New Line Cinema permitted the Hughes brothers to direct their film Menace II Society. It is depressing that it would take a small war to convince a film executive that an African American perspective on life in the ghetto is worth backing. What the film depicts is even more disheartening. There is nothing that has not been exposed before but the degrees of brutality and depravity are shown at shorter intervals and with more intensity. The structure of the film adds to the eeriness by promoting a shocking disconnection between the acts of violence and emotional response. The central characters are so devoid of a sense of humanity that they greet each horrific act of violence with complete dispassion. This is not a pretty picture. The execution of the film is not pretty either: the acting is self-conscious, the story-line is choppy, the cinematographer showed a strange color-palette when lighting interiors, the endless voice-over narration stifled the acting-out of events… Despite all the problems the Hughes brother's have created something worth watching.

When I was a young teen-ager I used to visit movie-houses in Harlem and see the fore-runners of Menace: Black Caesar, Across 110 Street, Cornbread Earl and Me, The Education of Sonny Carson…  These movies were as varied as the titles and ranged from parables about the ruthlessness of the ghetto to pure exploitation fantasies celebrating gore and violence. They were not directed at white audiences and rarely showed in white neighborhoods. These were black filmmakers telling urban (usually New York) stories. That is not to say that only black people could enjoy the results. I certainly did but I think the context (i.e.seeing these films in Harlem with predominantly African American audiences) added greatly to my understanding and appreciation. Ghetto movie houses are social gathering places closely akin to 19th century theaters. The lights never go down all the way for reasons of safety. This also illuminates the main attraction: the audience. The seats on the extremes were designated for loners: mostly homeless people and drug attics. The center section was filled with sundry groups: boys, girls, couples, families… While the loners stayed quiet everyone else became boisterous. The goal was to shout out funny comments regarding the action on screen. A clever wit won applause but beware the stupid remark. Audiences can be harsh and unforgiving. I remember one man forcibly ejected by a group who found his humor lacking. The reaction to the protagonists was equally exuberant. Villains were jeered. Heroes were cheered. This behavior was the anti-thesis of how audience members were expected to act in white movie-houses. I remember my initial reaction, being a white Caucasian from a rich neighborhood, was shock. 

I had the good fortune of seeing Menace in its' hometown: Los Angeles. Regrettably I chose a theater in a "good" neighborhood. The audience's response was tepid except for a couple who talked incessantly and reacted to each burst of bloodshed with a guffaw. A young man sitting in my row was initially outraged by their reaction and repeatedly turned and glared. The couple was oblivious. Forget the gory goings-on on the screen; here was a genuine clash of cultures. Having spent many hours in ghetto movie theaters, I understood that it was not only acceptable to be vocal, but encouraged.  Violence is usually met with applause and laughter. Before judging this obscene it is important to note that to these audiences face crime and violence as real-life occurrences. People from good neighborhoods or a rural setting might be granted the luxury of seeing screen re-enactment as shocking. Perhaps films such as Menace can bridge the gap. It is difficult to imagine another setting which would bring the couple and the disgruntled man together in the same room. It was encouraging to note that the film itself, ironically, had a soothing effect on this small, but significant, audience confrontation. The man was overtaken by the events on screen and stopped fidgeting. The couples' outbursts became universally welcomed moments of levity. 

The genuineness of Menace is unmistakable. The language was especially revealing. One might not recognize the vocabulary but there can be no question of its authenticity. The same sense of first-hand knowledge rang through the many scenes of violence: the blasé attitudes of the perpetrators, the meandering storyline and the heartfelt struggles of those trying to live normal lives. The moments of staginess seem to come of the lack of ability of the actors and not the truth of the situation. The Hughes brothers are telling a story which is born out of being observers. It is coarse and badly told. But perhaps that shouldn't be the point. They have born witness; now you're gonna. Their vision helps fill the gap. Now one can see the roots of many of the anonymous African Americans who are casually thrown in the back of police cars on nightly television. That in turn might fill the black-white culture gap. At the very least one might come to a different conclusion about people who laugh at on-screen violence. They're not sick. They're scared. Judging by what the Hughes brothers have shown, they have every right to be.                                 

P.S. I would note that after writing this an incident occurred in San Francisco which speaks to the substance of my review. A group of inner city high school students on a field-trip were thrown out of a showing of Schindler's List. They were making silly comments and laughing while the action on screen depicted atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews. Many of the fellow audience members (older white people) were deeply offended and felt that this was showed a pathological hatred of Caucasians (white Jews in particular) by the students (most of whom were African American). The students were angry at being thrown out of the theater and felt they had done nothing wrong. One of the young students interviewed said that he was laughing because the manner in which one young victim reacted after she was shot was "funny" and "wasn't real". The Los Angeles Times account seemed to be using this as evidence to support the claim that the students were racist callous thugs. It would be interesting to know if this student (and the others who were laughing) were talking from the perspective of having witnessed someone being murdered by a bullet. This first hand knowledge combined with ignorance of the historical reality of the Holocaust (according to that same article over 50% of  American highschool students are unable to define the Holocaust) puts their laughter in a different context. It would also be interesting to know how many of the outraged audience members had ever been to a movie house in a predominately African-American neighborhood.       

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