Dueling Narratives: Some Thoughts on Menace II Society and Boyz 'N the Hood
Issue #33, September 1997
Academics today are all-too-satisfied, it seems to me, to simply proclaim that race is a social construction and end the discussion at that. But, like any social construction — including capital itself — race is experienced in particular and real ways for all and must be faced as such. If nothing else, the so-called "hood" films of the early to mid 1990s point to the reality of race as an entirely lived category. I would like to look here at two of these films — Boyz 'N the Hood and Menace II Society. Read together, the films counterpose traditionalist notions of race and racial politics with nihilistic ones. I want to point out the limits of this common opposition, and suggest a way we may look beyond it.
Menace II Society (1993), the Hughes Brothers' first film, begins with a subtle but striking scene. It is the last day of school and the main character, Caine, sits in a class room, looking particularly bored and distracted. His mood, however, is interrupted and soon animated by a call from his beeper, which he acknowledges with a nod. The beeper, of course, marks Caine as a drug dealer. Its call interrupts and shatters the placid school scene and his neatly defined role in it. Caine is, quite clearly, now outside of the schoolroom, in spirit if not in body. The scene would be fairly unremarkable, except for a series of seemingly discrepant images — an African American woman heads the class, while African sculpture is featured prominently on her desk.
The environment, it seems, is not the obviously oppressive Eurocentric schooling environment portrayed in Boyz 'N the Hood (1991), perhaps the first of the so-called "'hood" films. Here, the main character (Tre) attends a classroom headed by a white woman, a woman who seems wholly unable to see her students outside of narrow stereotypical — i.e., "pathological" — confines. For example, this seemingly concerned teacher calls Tre's mother at home early on in the film. She explains that Tre is "highly intelligent" but has "a very bad temper." She suggests therapy and then asks "is there some problem in the home? Are you employed?" She is surprised that his mother is "educated" and that there is a father in the picture. The teacher is an obviously foreign and hostile presence in these students' lives. By pointing to her obvious inadequacies and prejudices, Boyz provides the viewer with a de facto solution to many of the problems it presents. These young people need more "racially sensitive" education.
Concurrently, Boyzplaces a lot of hope in the opposition racial narrative of Afrocentrism. Towards the beginning of the film, for example, a young Tre takes over his teacher's history lesson on "thanksgiving," asking the class, "Did you know that Africa is the place where the body of the first man was found? My daddy says that makes it the place where all people originated from. That means everybody's originally from Africa. Everybody." Of course, such theories resonate with a long history of Afrocentrism — from Marcus Garvey through Louis Farrakhan. For those who embrace such beliefs, Africa is the cradle of civilization, making all Africans original peoples. This is a racial narrative with a long history, one which has provided hope for many in an often hostile United States.
In many ways, Menace II Society comments upon and reworks the implicit hope of such Afrocentric narratives. Such narratives are helpless, the film seems to say, to combat the nihilism so endemic and rampant in our "inner-cities" today. Indeed, Menace II Society offers us no narratives — including Afrocentric ones — to cling to. The films does not provide the viewer with a clear story line (i.e., rising action, climax, resolution) to follow. The film unfolds in a series of sporadic and impressionistic images. In key example, the film opens with a brutal murder of a Korean store owner and his wife. Traditional realist film making would dictate that Menace bring this event to clear resolution. But no resolution comes. It is one brutal image among many, some of which link together, some of which don't.
In fact, while one feels some closure after watching Boyz 'N the Hood — the main character goes off to Morehouse College — one can easily feel paralyzed after viewing Menace. The film leaves the viewer with little to cling to. The main character is murdered in a drive-by shooting, a shooting prompted by a seemingly small event in his life and in the film. Caine has sex with a woman and denies responsibility for her pregnancy. He then has a fight with her cousin who returns — entirely unexpectedly — at the end of the film. It is a disconcerting moment, one made all the more poignant by the fact that Caine is literally in the process of moving out of "the hood" at the moment of his murder.
Indeed, Menace II Society — perhaps more than any other film of its genre — embodies the nihilistic spirit which critics such as Cornel West have explored. In a series of influential commentaries, West notes that black America is facing a "nihilistic threat to its very existence," marked by the breakdown of traditional "black religious and civic institutions that sustained familial and communal networks of support" (West 38, 40) Such support systems — it is crucial to note — are absent in Menace. The ideals that older people hold here (including racial ones) do not entirely resonate for these young people, as evidenced by the school scene noted earlier. This film indexes the very forces which West calls attention to and critiques here.
Menace II Society, thus, does not leave us a clear "answer" to run with. The one avenue that the film does leave us to explore is entirely disconcerting. It is, quite simply, that old solutions to new problem will not suffice. We need new ones. Old paradigms of race cannot be drawn on to explicate these problems as these older notions of race no longer hold for young people. So where — once again — does this leave us? The solution is not to decry the lack of such narratives but to do the hard work involved in understanding what narratives do hold for young people.
As I noted earlier, academics seem all-too satisfied to simply proclaim the death of meta-narratives and affirm that race is a social construction. However, this is a starting point, not an ending point, for discussion. We must begin to understand exactly how race is lived on local levels for those most marginalized in this era of late capitalism. Further, we must do so while avoiding two traps. The first trap is nihilism — the idea that all meta-narratives, including racial ones, have died and we can say nothing meaningful about them. The second is the trap of traditionalism — the idea that we should cling to the older narratives which have sustained past generations and this will be enough. We need, in sum, to understand the quality of durable and lived racial constructions without being limited by old models. The urgency of the so-called "'hood" films, as far as I'm concerned, should point us in this direction.
For Further Reading:
West, Cornel. "Nihilism in Black America." Black Popular Culture. Ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992, 37-47.
Greg Dimitriadis is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Speech Communication. His work has appeared in Popular Musicand The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.