“It set the table for the whole movie, because the whole movie felt like that scene,” Allen Hughes says of the harrowing opening to “Menace II Society,” the 1993 film he co-directed with his twin brother, Albert. A quarter century later, the three-minute depiction of murders in a convenience store remains both jarring and haunting for its audacious depiction of how rapidly everyday interactions can escalate to extreme violence. The scene announced the cinematic arrival of the Hughes brothers and 25 years later it’s still gutting to watch.
The scene begins with Caine (Tyrin Turner) and O-Dog (Larenz Tate), two black teenagers, entering a neighborhood store in South Central Los Angeles, only to be immediately racially profiled by its Korean owners. There was palpable tension between the two communities in the wake of Latasha Harlins’s 1991 killing at the hands of a Korean convenience store owner, and what transpired during the post-Rodney King L.A. riots in the city’s Koreatown section a year later.
The transaction turns deadly following one of the store owners’ now famous last words: “I feel sorry for your mother.”
O-Dog executes the man and his wife in response to the insult. Caine, mirroring the audience’s horror, becomes “an accessory to murder and armed robbery,” as he states via narration. How did this happen? Because he and O-Dog were born into a powder keg where even a hint of disrespect can turn fatal.
The scene shocked and captivated audiences when it premiered at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and did the same when it opened in the United States shortly thereafter. Allen and Albert Hughes, who were just 20 years old when they made the film, acknowledge their goal was to educate white America through shock value. The doomed Caine and unrepentant O-Dog were the adolescent boogeymen pearl-clutching evening news viewers feared. “Menace II Society” sought to explain how those characters became that way, and to do it without sermonizing.
“The movie was all about trying to make white people empathize with the circumstances which created them,” Albert Hughes says.
The opening scene not only introduces the film’s two main characters, but, just as important, it establishes the motivation for their actions. The impetus for almost all the violence is vengeance fueled by pride.
Caine is shot during a carjacking in which his cousin is murdered for refusing to give up his car. Pride all but signed his death certificate. Before Caine, O-Dog and A-Wax (played by MC Eiht) exact revenge, O-Dog chides Caine over his morality, expressed by refusing to open fire with children or the elderly present. Later, Caine savagely beats the man who confronts him about disrespecting his cousin; that act of disrespect seals Caine’s fate.
“A lot of it has to do with the hyper-masculinity for people who feel marginalized, so the notion of manhood to the African American male is of the utmost importance,” says Tyger Williams, the film’s screenwriter.
There’s a clear connection between masculinity and respect, and that’s especially true for the young men portrayed in “Menace II Society,” who don’t feel respect from the culture at large.
“You aren’t born with material possessions, but you’re born a boy and become a man, and you sort of define the boundaries of this sense of masculinity,” says Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the intersection of race and popular culture. “If somebody steps over those boundaries, you can use physical violence as a way of reinforcing them.”
And regardless of whether this state of mind is a symptom or the condition, it’s agitated by climate. In “Menace II Society,” it’s brewed in the cauldron of post-riots, crack-cocaine era South Central Los Angeles. Turner, who grew up in that area, says the lethal response, specifically as it’s shown in that opening scene, stems from pent up frustration gone awry.
“It’s showing that if you keep pestering us, we’ll prove that we aren’t punks,” he says. “We’ll become violent if you keep messing with us.”
Another part of the conflict derives from cultural disconnect.
“The [store owners] didn’t understand that saying something about this boy’s mother would result in death,” says Tate, who admits the scene resonated with him on a personal level, the ultra-violence notwithstanding. “In the script, after [the actor] says ‘I feel sorry for your mother,’ I ad-libbed the classic line: ‘What you say about my momma?’ That was not written.”
But the baby-faced killer’s instability is also driven by deep insecurity that isn’t addressed during the film. According to the Hugheses and Williams, the character of O-Dog was illiterate and raised by his sister, with absentee parents. This revelation adds a new layer to the scene: mentioning his mother — who, even if she’s alive, is an area of sensitivity due to her absence — strikes a live wire in a teenager with frayed emotions and developmental issues.
“You could clearly see that he’s not fully developed psychologically and emotionally, so that’s why he responded the way he did to any type of offense,” Tate adds. “There’s so many young men at that age who aren’t stable based off the lack of parental guidance. Based off the lack of family support. Based off the lack of male presence in their lives. All of that is a factor, and people like to gloss over that.”
O-Dog lacks the tools to qualify what warrants death, so his response to disrespect is taking lives. He’s what Allen Hughes calls “the worst of what can happen when kids aren’t nurtured.”
“To be that out of touch with your emotions contributes to that sociopathic or psychopathic behavior where murder and extreme violence become options,” Williams says.
Just as critical as the opening-scene killings is what happens toward the end of the scene: O-Dog steals the surveillance video, which plays a large role in the rest of the film. He ends up treating it as a highlight reel of sorts and flaunts it throughout their neighborhood as a twisted source of pride. In his mind, it’s proof that he’s to be respected — feared, even. He wants to be praised for murdering someone who showed disrespect of the highest order. But, in a hubristic turn, it becomes evidence against him.
“There was this culture of fame that we still have today, but before YouTube and before you could send your homies videos, to have an ill video in the ’hood and to be that fixated on becoming famous for your violence is what was striking about [O-Dog] taking that tape,” Allen Hughes explains.
As for that opening scene, Albert Hughes says the most straightforward interpretation is still the best one.
“The only conscious thing about that scene wasn’t how delicate life was, but how these kids didn’t think s--- through,” Albert Hughes says. “If you say the wrong thing you can die, and they’re just not thinking.”