This July marks the 25th anniversary of John Singleton’s time-capsule urban drama, Boyz n The Hood. The film was a watershed moment in American cinema, bridging the gap between white moviegoers and the issues plaguing the African-American community in South Central Los Angeles. It shined a (soft-focus) light on the bloodshed, the violence, and the cyclical nature of murder and despair eroding the black neighborhoods from the inside out like a social cancer.
The buzz surrounding Boyz n The Hood played into the hands of Singleton and his film, rife with stars like Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, and Cuba Gooding Jr. – who weren’t quite stars yet. It was a massive hit, it launched careers, and it grabbed two Oscar nominations. And, like any vital cultural film, Boyz n The Hood spawned dozens of imitators. Some were okay, others were anything but okay, but one perhaps told the same story even better than Singleton’s film. That was 1993’s Menace II Society.
Directed by the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, Menace II Society was a much more grim, unforgiving look at the road to nowhere young black men were traveling in South Central at the time. The awards weren’t thrown the film’s way, the box office was lighter. But as time, the greatest judge of all, has aged both films, one’s withstood the appreciation process better than the other. Both are monumental films, important glimpses into uncomfortable and distressing swaths of this country, but one is better in just about every way.
The Case for ‘Boyz n The Hood’
The story of Tre Styles, growing up under the watchful and philosophical eye of his father, Furious, is an emotionally engaging if somewhat melodramatic examination of gangs and hopelessness in The Hood. The dynamic between Tre and his friends is the nucleus of the picture. Ice Cube’s Doughboy is the best of a trio of friends that includes Gooding’s Tre and Morris Chestnut as Ricky, the athlete who has a football scholarship waiting for him if only he can make it out alive. Sadly, he cannot, and Ricky’s death is one of the more devastating moments in modern cinema. It’s sad and heartbreaking, and despite the weaknesses of Singleton behind the camera – the framing is off, the melodrama ramped up when it doesn’t need to be – the performances sell the tragedy.
Boyz n The Hood can also stand on the merits of its cultural impact. Riots and unrest surrounded the release of the film in some areas, and the danger existing in the periphery added a layer of percolating energy to what happened on the screen. As an important film, it’s one of the most important of the 90s. But, as a cinematic experience, Singleton’s direction is just a little off. Everything feels too saccharine in the end. Despite the title card telling us Doughboy doesn’t make it a month after the end of the film, the story forces an upbeat note though it didn’t earn it moments before, when Ricky’s murderers are executed.
The Case for ‘Menace II Society’
Where Boyz n The Hood falls victim to its own desires to be positive in the end, Menace II Society approaches the very same subject matter with a more nihilistic and unforgiving tone. Caine (Tyrin Turner), our “hero” of the film, is not the greatest person. He may be better than his friend, O-Dog (Lorenz Tate), a psychopath who murders an Asian convenience store owner and his wife for basically no real reason (and subsequently shows off the surveillance tape to his friends over and over), but Caine knows his lot in life. Like so many young African-Americans in the 90s, South Central Los Angeles was the end of the world. The horizon stopped at the edge of their streets full of murder and hate, and Caine was a child borne of this place. He’s a drug dealer, he jacks cars, and he gets uneasy when his grandparents bring up God around him.
All that being said, Caine isn’t a bad kid. It might seem weird to say, but that’s the beauty of the Hughes’ film: not everything is black and white. In Boyz n The Hood, there was a clear delineation between Tre and Doughboy. We are told from the beginning Tre is a wholesome kid stuck in the wrong place. It’s hammered into our head, in fact. Here, nuance is employed. Caine is a product of his environment, shaped by the criminality in his past, in his friendships, and in the inescapable daily life. He does bad things, but we come to understand in the scope of bad shit that goes on, his transgressions are minor. Menace II Society understands to a better degree that there are no clear answers to what ails these young men, and the Tre’s in this world are far less likely than the Caine’s.
As a film experience, Menace II Society buzzes with a ferocity lacking in Singleton’s film. The camera captures the right moments, frames them brilliantly, and the Hughes’ understanding of street culture – a culture they examined to a lesser extent in Dead Presidents and From Hell – brings a pavement-pounding grit. These streets aren’t untouched by the pollution of its characters, like they sometimes are in Singleton’s frame. There is no melodrama here, because melodrama isn’t the right tone to tell these stories.
It isn’t a close race between Boyz n The Hood and Menace II Society when these two pictures are examined back to back. One is a visceral cinematic experience, a brutal and unflinching examination of a world most of us never want to see firsthand. The other, Singleton’s film, is an important film, and a watchable and entertaining movie, but on the basis of cinematic quality and thematic elegance, Menace II Society has aged much better.