Film of the Week: Menace II Society

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Samuel L. Jackson plays Caine’s father, a prominent drug dealer in Watts, Los Angeles

Opening on footage of the 1965 Watts riots, Menace II Society frames its narrative in the larger socio-political context of reality. Although fictional, characters, their motivations, and the consequences they face, subsequently become reflections of the historical forces guiding the film, transforming the story into its own truth. Kaydee “Caine” Lawson (Tyrin Turner), a recent high-school graduate, finds himself embroiled but also seduced by the world of gangsterdom, and understandably so. Being a gangster offers an immediate and recognizable form of pleasure: luxurious cars, stylish accessories, and perhaps the most sought-out desire in the hood, respect. Caine provides narration to the film, and describes life in Watts as being unpredictable. True, but this unpredictability can be understood as the result of the very masculine and performative forces at play. In order to gain respect, Caine and the other men must always keep up the tough-guy facade. At the start of the film, Caine’s father murders another man, and one gets the sense that the killing wasn’t done for the money owed necessarily, but because the man called Caine’s father a “pussy;” a veritable spit-in-the-face requiring a retribution of blood. And so the unpredictable life in Watts becomes predicated on a cycle of masculine violence where facades must be kept, boys are forced to become men, and die too soon, stripped of the opportunity for a better life by the powers of American racism.

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