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Jesse Taylor thought killing those fools would make him feel good, but it really didn’t make him feel anything.
“I feel sorry for your mother.”
“What you say about my mama?”
It’s been 25 years since O-Dog uttered those fateful words to the liquor store owner before blasting him and stealing the dead man’s cash from his pockets. Portrayed by Larenz Tate, O-Dog was the scene-stealing character people remember most from Menace II Society, which came out of nowhere in 1993 on its way to becoming an award-winning, critically-acclaimed film. It made Siskel and Ebert’s list of 1993’s Top 10 Films. Roger Ebert wrote that it was the best directed American film of the year, it won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography and MTV honored it as the Best Movie of 1993 over the likes of Philadelphia, Jurassic Park, The Fugitive and Schindler’s List.
Yes, I know, MTV also gave the Twilight series and Transformers the same award, but still, Menace was a big fucking deal.
After watching the movie at least countless times during my primitive years, I recently streamed it on Netflix to find out how it holds up 25 years later. Despite some clunky dialogue and clichéd storytelling, Menace is still as powerful today because it’s a wonderfully shot and directed film with several brilliant performances that help the audience empathize with and better understand their unspeakable and violent actions (but it still can’t be excused for its shitty drive-thru car-jacking re-imagining of Ice Cube’s classic “JD’s Gafflin’” skit from the Amerikkka’s Most Wanted album).
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Menace yet, I mean, it’s been 25 years and it’s a classic, so you’re going to have to either leave to go watch it now and come back here later, or deal with the spoilers below. Moving on …
Following the financial and critical success of 1991’s Boyz N The Hood, Hollywood became somewhat less uncomfortable backing a few movies telling the stories rap music fans had been consuming for years – those of inner-city black youth (25 years later they finally came around to being somewhat comfortable with black superheroes, but Hollywood has never been accused of being ahead of its time for anything related to race).
In 1992, Juice and South Central were the two most notable movies that followed Boyz N The Hood, but nothing matched the explosive violence and authentic storytelling of Menace. At just 20-years-old, twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes took Tyger Williams’ original screenplay to New Line Cinema, and received $3.5 million in financing — thanks in part to the casting of one Tupac Shakur (more on him later). Production on the groundbreaking film began soon after.
It centers on the character of Caine during the summer after he (barely) graduates high school. Tyrin Turner, most recognizable from his role as the emotional “Kid” in Janet Jackson’s extended “Rhythm Nation” video, plays emo once again as Caine, a 1992-Nike-Air-Sonic-Flights-wearing drug-dealing gangster from Watts who has no plans beyond being a 1992-Nike-Air-Sonic-Flights-wearing drug-dealing gangster from Watts.
That is, until two options present themselves. The first is to leave with one of his friends, who’s going to Kansas on a football scholarship. The second is to leave with Jada Pinkett, who’s moving to Atlanta. Based on her enormous baggy jeans and sweatshirts, she might be going to Atlanta to join TLC in their “What About Your Friends” video shoot. But no, she has a job offer and wants Caine to join her and her son in “The A.” Wisely, Caine chooses to leave with Jada over the linebacker, but his not-so-distant violent and southernplayalistic past catches up with him on the day of their move and he’s gunned down in a drive-by.
The movie overcomes its clunky dialogue (I swear I saw Jada Pinkett look off camera and give someone a side-eye right before she had to deliver a line telling Caine, “You ain’t doing jack shit with your life” for the third time in three scenes) by not forcing the main point of the movie down the audience’s throat. Its theme is parenting, or in Caine’s case, how the lack of parenting led to his troubled life. In comparison, Sharif, who is part of Caine’s crew, has a strong parent that leads him down a more positive direction. As Ronnie, Jada Pinkett plays a strong single mother who is also building a path of potential for her son. Through two scenes (both taking place on a back porch) at opposite ends of the movie during different timelines in Caine’s life, we see the impact of parenting.
The movie wisely doesn’t go into much background on the other characters in Caine’s crew, leaving it to our imaginations to determine what their upbringings were like. For example, what did happen with O-Dog’s mom to make him react that way to the liquor store owner? And what was O-Dog’s dad like? Because O-Dog is far deeper in hell than Caine.
At least Caine feels compassion and has morals despite his poor decision-making. O-Dog views the world around him as lifeless. The people he kills are not below or subhuman to him – they are nothing. They don’t exist because life isn’t real, so there’s no moral quandary when he kills. Accordingly, he has no concerns for the repercussions his actions have on his life. Which is why he doesn’t care when Caine keeps telling him to stop showing the video from the liquor store shooting.
Caine doesn’t want to get caught. O-Dog doesn’t know what getting caught is.
The film combined experienced actors with novice rappers – some more successfully than others. The outstanding Charles S. Dutton is wasted in a short role as Sharif’s strong father, as the script gives him some of the worst lines to pull off. Samuel L. Jackson is brilliant in a cameo as Caine’s father.
Wearing a memorable wig second only to Jules’ Jheri curl wig in Pulp Fiction, Jackson plays a stone-cold killer with no life behind his red eyes. Glenn Plummer, the star of South Central one year earlier (and the Jaguar owner who gives Keanu Reeves a ride in Speed), provides life to the imprisoned Pernell, Caine’s mentor and baby-daddy to Ronnie. With just two seasons of A Different World under her belt, Jada makes the most of her role as Ronnie.
A host of rappers appeared in the film (Too $hort, Saafir, Pooh-Man, looking every bit like Winnie The Pooh, and Yo Yo), with MC Eiht taking on the biggest role as A-Wax. At one point, Spice 1 of “Welcome to the Ghetto” and “Peace to My Nine” fame, was slated for the starring role of Caine due to his relationship with the Hughes Brothers, who shot several of his videos. And MC Ren was originally cast as A-Wax before turning it down. But the biggest casting story was the involvement and fallout of Tupac. Listening to the anecdotes from Eiht, Spice, the Hughes Brothers and Pac himself, things went down as such.
The studio wanted ‘Pac have a role if it was going to finance the film. The Hughes Brothers had directed several of Tupac’s videos, including “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” and weren’t fans of his work ethic, so they gave him the smaller role of Sharif. Tupac asked that they give Sharif more of a backstory to explain why an inner-city kid hanging out with gangster’s and drug dealers was a clean-cut Muslim. The Hughes refused and arguments ensued during rehearsals.
Things got more heated when ‘Pac arrived to rehearsal 15 minute late, but no punches were thrown that day. ‘Pac then learned he was fired from the set through the media (for the record, Vonte Sweet was an excellent replacement for Sharif). Rather than make an issue of it immediately, ‘Pac let time go by and the film was completed. When he heard the Hughes Brothers were shooting Spice 1’s “Trigger Gots No Heart” video from the movie soundtrack, ‘Pac arrived on set and proceeded to beat the shit out of the Hughes Brothers. According to Spice 1, after the brawl, Allen Hughes walked away looking like a bloody Carrie from the Stephen King movie.
According to ‘Pac, he did all the damage himself. According to Allen, 12 Crips did the damage and ‘Pac just stood there.
Either way, things were better off without ‘Pac, because the movie really belonged to Tate in his role as O-Dog. After a number of minor roles on TV (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, The Wonder Years, 21 Jump Street), Tate hit the big screen with an Al Pacino as Scarface-type performance. He was relentless and violent but extremely likeable, funny and empathetic as O-Dog. For reasons beyond me, he never became a star (he’s still acting today and has a recurring role on Starz’ Power), but at least he can always look back on Menace and know he gave one of cinema’s all-time great performances.
Clunky dialogue aside, the movie delivered some classic lines:
“You hurry up and buy.”
“Better suck my dick” … “Suck on this motherfucker.”
“You owe me some money motherfucker?!” … “Hell naw, but here you go.”
“Who got some snaps on the petrol?” … “My motherfuckin’ pocket is hurting.”
“You know you done fucked up, don’t you?”
“D-d-d-d-i-d I stutter motherfucker!”
Lastly, this is a music-based website, and we can’t discuss Menace II Society without mentioning the all-time great soundtrack that accompanied it. The standout is MC Eiht’s “Streiht Up Menace,” for my money one of the greatest songs in rap music history.
But it also features stand-out work from legends like UGK, Spice 1, Too $hort, Brand Nubian, BDP, DJ Quik, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Ant Banks. But unknowns deliver two of the best songs: female rapper Mz. Kilo kills it on “All Over a Ho” and The Cutthroats team with Guru for the intense “Stop Looking at Me.” The internet left me no cookie crumbles to find out what happened to the mysterious Mz. Kilo and why she disappeared.
But it did offer this on the tragic story of The Cutthroats.