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To Live and Die in L.A.

Twenty-five years after riots overtook Los Angeles, there are a slew of new documentaries that attempt to explain the events of that fateful week. But in addition to cold facts, it’s important to look at films from the early ’90s like ‘Menace II Society’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood’ to understand the mood and context that begat the violence.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This monthly column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and anti-fascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.

The first thing he does is get the tape.

In the opening moments of the 1993 film Menace II Society, Caine and O-Dog, two young black men growing up on the streets of Los Angeles, step into a convenience store to grab 40s. That’s how the trip begins, at least: It ends with the two store owners, a middle-aged Korean couple who had warily watched Caine and O-Dog’s every move, starkly dead. It all happens kind of fast: suspicious glances, defensive remarks, a stray comment about O-Dog’s mother, and a bullet to the chest. Caine, the hero of the movie and its narrator, puts it wisely. "Went into the store just to get a beer, came out an accessory to murder and armed robbery," he says in a voice-over as we watch him and O-Dog fleeing the scene. "It’s funny like that in the hood sometimes. You never knew what was gonna happen — or when."

It’s O-Dog (Larenz Tate) who does the shooting. He shoots the man point-blank at the counter, and before he kills the man’s wife, he drags her into the back room and demands she give him the security tape. It’s a reflex. You kill a guy in front of security cameras, you make sure to get the tape. But do you watch it again and again, in a masturbatory way, afterward? Do you show it to your friends, offering up live commentary like it’s a football reel? O-Dog wields the tape like it’s the secret to his celebrity; had he not stolen it, and had it made its way onto news stations to be played over and over, it might have been. Stealing the tape, though, revises the narrative.

It’s this tape that I can’t help but think of today. Saturday, April 29, 2017, marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the riots that rocked the city of L.A. for a week. The immediate occasion was the acquittal of the four police officers accused of severely beating Rodney King on March 3, 1991: another violent, racial crime caught on tape. But the riots, which lasted six days and resulted in $1 billion in property damage and the deaths of more than 60 people, were also the result of everything hovering in the background. They were the result of years of pointed police violence against black Angelenos, as well as other events, not involving the police, that seemed to illuminate just how far down blacks were on the social ladder.

One of those events was the March 1991 death of Latasha Harlins, a black teenager shot to death after a brief altercation with a Korean shopkeeper. The shooter, Soon Ja Du, walked away with a fine, five years probation, and 400 hours of community service. The light sentence was a crime in itself. Is that why, remembering the riots, I can’t help but think of Menace? That movie’s uneasy racial reversal of Harlins’s death, its fantasy of a black gangbanger not only getting to strike back, but getting away with it, sticks with me. The movie, which was directed by twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, turns 25 next year — so maybe this essay is a little bit early. There are, after all, more direct ways to study the L.A. riots: We’re in the midst of being flooded with films about it, from the likes of Spike Lee, John Singleton, Netflix, the Smithsonian, National Geographic, and A&E. These movies, all being released this month, come at a time when the spectacle of black death, whether captured on body cam or streamed on Facebook Live, is seemingly constant — and at a time when nonfiction filmmakers, especially, are eager to wrestle with what that means.

New and recent films prove it. Jason Pollock’s Stranger Fruit, which debuted at SXSW this year, uses previously unreleased video footage to contest the Ferguson police department’s account of the moments leading up to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Last year, Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, about race and American incarceration, featured a climactic montage of recent black deaths at the hands of police — images we’d all seen before, undoubtedly, though never stitched together as profoundly or rigorously. Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America, meanwhile, devoted an entire two-hour episode to the L.A. riots, what led up to them, and the moral and political carnage they left behind: context, the documentary argues, that explains the otherwise hard-to-fathom acquittal of O.J. Simpson.

These are all, fundamentally, films that study the persistence of black death in the moving image. The pointed choice to emphasize this footage opens up the riots, as well as the recordings of violence that helped incite them, to a broader, distinctly visual history. That history includes Mamie Till Mobley insisting on an open casket for her son, Emmett, and the photos subsequently published in Jet, as a warning to others of what’s at stake in racial violence. It includes the photographs of lynched black bodies that white vigilantes would mail to friends and relatives as postcards. Charred bits of the victim’s burned body were sometimes collected as souvenirs: reminders of the day’s fresh "justice." Unlike the historical atrocities our country has perpetuated against, say, displaced and disenfranchised Native Americans, or Japanese citizens wrongfully interned during World War II, the ongoing spectacle of violence against black Americans post-slavery has been perpetuated primarily in images. Not just generational storytelling, or the historical record, but literal pictures — they’re everywhere.

Can a photo of a dog viciously tearing at the heels of a civil rights protestor surprise us anymore? We’ve eroded the shock of that image into well-intended cliché. But the power of cinema is that it can restore that sense of shock. Much of the new and recent documentary work about the L.A. riots constitutes challenging, thoughtful, and well-made attempts to restore the fresh terror of that violence. Yet there remains a gap in this effort: fiction. And fictional films from the early ’90s are worth revisiting for precisely that reason: In place of facts, they offer mood. Instead of well-honed arguments, they offer feeling. Traditional documentaries, with their news clips and talking heads, revel in facts. They can explore what happened and give it context, but they cannot be that context. They can explain the violence. But they can’t embody it.

I thus find myself drawn back to Menace II Society, a movie that is not about the riots but, in its ability to evoke what they were about, feels inseparable from them. And I’m drawn back to Boyz n the Hood (1991), and the many other hood movies of the ’90s, released before and after the King beating, the LAPD acquittal, the riots, and the rest. The stories these two films tell are essential to understanding what happened in April 1992. The movies aren’t about police brutality so much as they are about the mood that violence, and the structures supporting it, cultivated among black Angelenos — and black Americans broadly. Menace, particularly, folds itself into the fabric of that history by way of a videotape that seems to reverse it.

Ice Cube as Doughboy in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991) (Getty Images)
Ice Cube as Doughboy in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991) (Getty Images)

"Turnt on the TV this morning. Had this shit on about — about living in a violent world. Showed all these foreign places. … Started thinking man: Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood."

These are the words of Doughboy, played by Ice Cube. They aren’t bars, but he unspools them that way, giving them a rhythmic heft that comes off as a bluesy lament. This is his monologue in the final scene of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, spoken just after Doughboy’s brother has been murdered, and soon before he (a closing title card tells us) gets murdered, too. These words sum up the moment of 1991. The nihilism of it — the sense of meaninglessness.

That sense is the familiar backstory to the one we tell ourselves about the L.A. riots on their anniversary. On the Smithsonian Channel, there’s The Lost Tapes: LA Riots, a tense, hourlong mixture of home videos, police footage, news reports, and a flood of other contending images. It is a present-tense account of the riots as they broke out, told through the footage that caught them live. The similarly sourced but longer LA 92, directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, was released in select theaters this week. Then there’s John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992, L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, and Showtime’s Burn Motherfucker, Burn. And beyond nonfiction, there’s Netflix’s Rodney King, a one-man show written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith and directed for the screen by Spike Lee — a show that deliberately echoes Anna Deavere Smith’s seminal one-woman play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, first produced in 1994.

These movies and performances, which reproduce the facts of the time, rightly go out of their way to assert blacks as victims, not criminals. But what has long stuck with me about art from the era, like Menace II Society and the music of N.W.A, is the more complex flirtation with crime as a necessary, even progressive, evil. The very title of Menace II Society invokes old crime movies and their role in lore: the original Scarface, Eliot Ness, "Don’t shoot, G-men!" and the rest. The title is as bold a statement of defiant antiheroism as Rebel Without a Cause. That’s how Caine describes his friend: "O-Dog was the craziest nigga alive. America’s nightmare: young, black, and didn’t give a fuck." It’s not a criticism.

"Menace to society" invokes the newsreels that used to play before movies in theaters, in which the likes of Al Capone could be slyly romanticized and celebrated by a reel that was also calling him a public menace. And Menace’s style, with its expressive lighting and swooping, crouching camera, is deliberately keyed into the exhilaration of violence. It flirts with the glorification that defined the early forays into the genre. The references to early crime pictures in the film amount to more than cinematic cred; the role those early movies played in defining criminals in the public imagination is essential to the subtext of Menace. Social misfits don’t exist just on the streets. They have, since the original gangster flicks, existed on the big screen, mixed in with the rest of our movie myths. That’s what made the hood movies that began to pop up in theaters at the start the ’90s such a distinct phenomenon. These were movies that, alongside hip-hop, made black hood life mainstream.

It’s no wonder, then, that O-Dog, flexing the tape of him shooting the Korean store owners, says: "I’ll be a big-ass star, shit." There’s a power, culture tells us, in being the watcher, and not the watched: That’s the subtext of all surveillance footage. It’s also the story of the recordings of Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, and the rest. And it’s the reason Menace features so many shots of the Watts neighborhood as seen from above, where we can hover over these black lives, the movie implies, like the police do. The movie didn’t invent that idea; its opening is the real version of such footage, news clips taken from above the 1965 Watts riots.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Singleton in 1992 (Getty Images)
Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Singleton in 1992 (Getty Images)

Surveillance is a key element of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, too. The images in Singleton’s film, released two years prior to Menace,when he was 23, are frequently lit up by the idly wandering spotlights of police helicopters flying overhead; gunshots and sirens run through Menace like distant undercurrents. These films are about the same thing — growing up a young black man in the post-Reagan, post-Watts hoods of Los Angeles — and yet they aren’t. Boyz was made before the riots, Menace afterward. See if you can spot the difference: One movie’s hero learns to kill, and the other doesn’t; one movie’s hero dies, and the other goes to college. Menace ends with a complete act of nonprogress, and though Boyz also ends with tragedy, it offers its hero an escape route. It promises black men a future away from the hood — if they somehow manage not to get shot.

Allen and Albert Hughes in 1993 (Getty Images)
Allen and Albert Hughes in 1993 (Getty Images)

I used to think Menace II Society was better than Boyz n the Hood because it seemed angrier. That’s not an especially good reason, and it’s wrong besides — Boyz is a furious, impassioned film — but I’m still sympathetic to the point. Both movies take the inevitability of black death in South Central as a given. But Boyz n the Hood is, on the surface, a much more sentimental study of that idea. Here’s a snippet of dialogue from its opening scene:

"Did ya’ll hear the shooting last night?""My mama said a bullet don’t have no name on it.""My brothers been shot and they still alive."

"My brothers been shot and they still alive."

These are children speaking. On the nose, maybe, but Boyz risks obviousness in order to chip away at the complex ideas hovering beneath. Take its opening image: a slow push forward toward a stop sign as, in the far distance, a plane flies overhead. You can read the image multiple ways. On the one hand, it suggests possibility: the stop sign as the boundary of blacks’ social status, the limits of the hood, with the plane on the horizon giving them something to believe in. It might also be a warning, or an admonition: simply, "You cannot go here." Boyz n the Hood and Menace are both about escaping the hood — you could easily retitle either movie Get Out, because that’s precisely what their characters want to do — but only Boyz imagines that escape to be possible, even as it tinges that sense of possibility with tragedy and doubt.

It’s worth dwelling, however, on the sense of possibility. It’s there in the fact that Tre Styles, the movie’s hero, does escape the hood and go to Morehouse. It’s also there in the social fabric of the movie. Tre’s mother sends him to live with his father so he can learn "how to be a man," how to survive, responsibly, despite the worst conditions. Tre’s parents, played by Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, are struggling to get by when the movie opens, in 1984, but by the end (set in 1991), Tre’s father owns his own business and his mother has upgraded to an apartment downtown with a lush view of the city.

Where Boyz leans on life lessons (hence its reputation for sentimentality), Menace instead dredges up formative violent experiences. Actually, the fact that Tre is being raised by his parents sets him apart from Menace’s Caine, who’s being raised by his religious grandparents because his father, a drug hustler, was killed when he was 7, and his mother overdosed on heroine soon thereafter. You thus get the impression from Menace that the game was rigged from the start: a vicious cycle you can’t bust your way out of because it begins at birth. As a mere child, Caine sees his father kill a guy and holds his first gun; it’s no shock, the movie tells us, that he learns to kill, nor when Caine himself introduces a young man to his first gun and the possibilities of violence.

Menace wears its nihilism on its sleeve: This, I think, is why the film is so essential to the story of the L.A. riots, even as it does not directly address them. It reflects what those riots represented, and what they changed. "Caine," asks his religious grandfather, "do you care if you live or die?" It’s a question about the spirit. "I don’t know," Caine says. O-Dog puts it more pointedly: "I don’t think God really cares too much about us, or he wouldn’t have put us here" — here being the hood. That was the sentiment behind the riots. When the cops who beat King and the shopkeeper who killed Latasha Harlins got off easy, there was more than a sense of unfairness. There was a sense that this kind of violence was insurmountable — that the game of justice was so rigged against blacks that there would be no end to it.

So you become a menace. It isn’t so much that Caine wants to kill, or to strike back, so much as he can’t seem to imagine a life spent doing anything else. Even when he does finally kill, an act of retaliation against a group of gangbangers who shot and killed his cousin, there’s no pleasure in it. He says, in a voice-over: "I thought killing these fools would make me feel good, but it really didn’t make me feel anything. I just knew that I could kill somebody. And if I had to, I’d kill again." Caine isn’t like O-Dog, whose way of surviving the violence of the streets is to revel in it. Yet at that moment, he’s talking as much about ruthless killers, like O-Dog, as he is about men such as himself who are caught up in violence because they know no other life.

Unlike O-Dog, Caine has other options. He is given a chance at an alternative life. His friend Sharif, a black Muslim who sees his religion as a spiritual means of escaping his upbringing, has invited him to move to Kansas. Caine also has an opportunity to move to Atlanta with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), who’s the ex-girlfriend of Caine’s prison-bound mentor. Neither of these plans pan out because Caine is killed: retaliation for getting a woman pregnant and abandoning her. But also, as the movie drives home, that’s just the way it goes — unless you get out.

There’s no room for hope in a movie like this — which is what distinguishes it from Boyz, and also from other films of its kind. Between Boyz and Menace, we’re given a near-complete picture of the spiritual, political, and cultural damage done by years of pointed segregation and police aggression. Boyz, made before the undercurrents of resistance to that oppression came to a head and broke out into the streets, is a study of what made those tides feel insurmountable — and of how they might be possible to overcome. Menace convinces us that they aren’t. Both films are rooted in the violence of L.A.’s past. But it’s Menace that made it impossible to imagine a future.