This may not be the most focused review for the Collab as I mentally process the past 5 or so days of the US election, which made everything feel like it was happening in slow motion. If you are at all familiar with this blog, you could likely guess with some accuracy that I am SO relieved with the Biden/Harris win, though I am still holding my breath until the orange man is physically out of the White House.
But let’s time travel back to a time when the current president was merely a horrible human discriminating against Black tenants in rental practices.
Menace II Society
After a visit to a convenience store results in violence, recent high school graduate Caine’s future looks increasingly bleak.
One fateful night, teens Caine and O-Dog enter an LA convenience store to buy beer. Everyone seems on edge, as the store owners immediately eye the two young Black men with suspicion, while the impulsive O-Dog drinks beer right from the bottle before paying and snaps out angry responses loaded with the f-bomb. It feels inevitable that a confrontation will break out. When the store owner makes an off-hand remark about O-Dog’s mother, the teen snaps, shooting both the man and his wife.
Though O-Dog’s actions kick off the film’s main story, Caine is our main protagonist and narrator. He reveals his family is from the Watts neighborhood of south LA, an area known for one of the city’s most significant uprisings in the 1960s.
In the aftermath of the riots, Caine’s father (played by Samuel L. Jackson!) was a drug dealer, while his mother was a heroin addict. By the time Caine was 10, both of his parents were dead and he had gone to live with his grandparents.
Despite the religious teachings of his grandparents, Caine follows in his father’s footsteps and is a drug dealer before he’s even graduated high school (in a scene that will remind viewers that this film is approaching 30 years old, Caine uses a pager to communicate about deals).
Though O-Dog is Caine’s best friend, there is tension between the two. O-Dog is reckless to a fault, going so far as to boastfully show the footage of the convenience store robbery to all of their buddies.
As it turns out, this is the least of Caine’s problems, as he and his cousin are carjacked one night after a party. Though Caine is shot, he survives…unlike his cousin. And Caine makes it his mission to avenge his cousin’s murder.
Meanwhile, Caine has been growing closer to Ronnie, a single mother whose ex has been sentenced to life without parole. Even though she’s essentially a free agent, it goes against some sort of bro code for Caine to pursue Ronnie. Instead, Caine hooks up with a young woman he picks up at a park.
At this point, Caine and O-Dog are arrested when they’re caught stealing a car. However, as this is Caine’s first arrest, and O-Dog is a minor, the two are released again soon, even after Caine’s prints match those found at the convenience store.
Throughout numerous violent encounters with the police and other young men, Caine has a chance to get out when Ronnie decides to take a job in Atlanta…and asks him to come along. But is Caine really ready to leave?
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
This is a tough watch. The circumstances Caine inherits from his parents effectively demonstrate the difficulty of breaking destructive cycles and systems. This is a rare film about inequity that wisely pans out to give the audience context rather than focusing blame on individuals.
However, I couldn’t get Radha Blank’s song about poverty porn (featured in last week’s The Forty-Year-Old Version) out of my head throughout the film. The unceasing misery depicted here does verge on poverty porn. Focusing on systems rather than people makes it difficult to care about any of the characters…or to feel that they have any agency whatsoever. The near-constant threat of violence from the police and those around Caine helps the viewer understand the ways he is dehumanized, but it doesn’t make him particularly sympathetic. He treats a lot of the characters here pretty badly, actually–especially women.
Caine certainly doesn’t deserve his fate, but the film presents it as inevitable, which weighs very heavily indeed.