Friday, May 17, 2013

Endangered Species: A 20th Anniversary Retrospective of ‘Menace II Society’ (Part 5)

In honor of the 20th anniversary of ‘Menace II Society,’ I proudly present this multipart retrospective.  The current chapter is posted below.  To read the previous chapter, please click here.  Thank you, and enjoy! 

Chapter V: Gathering the Troops

The Tender Trio had gotten all of their ducks in a row.  They now had a script, a star (in a supporting role), and a studio.  The participation of Tupac Shakur ensured that Menace II Society would be made in conjunction with New Line Cinema.   It was the best deal the trio could hope for at that time.  However, there were early signs of trouble.  Tupac’s erratic behavior was worsening by the day.  The film’s subject matter openly courted controversy.  When word of the project got around, other Black filmmakers tried to sabotage it.  The studio received a number of angry calls.  Though undeterred, New Line was definitely cautious.     

The brass decided that concessions had to be made.  A plot thread involving female gangbangers was excised.  The molls in question would’ve been charged with setting up “marks” for Caine and company when they jacked cars.  In order to give the film more “heart,” Tyger Williams added a tearful reunion between Caine and Pernell in a penitentiary visiting room.  The changes appeased New Line, but even bigger problems were looming just over the horizon. 

Before cameras could roll, the other parts had to be cast.  Bay Area rapper Spice-1 was reportedly in contention for the lead.  The role would ultimately go to Tyrin Turner, whom the Hughes Brothers “discovered” on an episode of America’s Most Wanted  (He’d already scored an unspoken part in Deep Cover).  For O-Dogg, the Hughes Brothers had envisioned a physically imposing brute.  They scrapped that idea after auditioning a baby faced Larenz Tate.  Jada Pinkett was a regular cast member on the primetime network sitcom A Different World.  Her combination of cuteness and spunk landed her the part of Ronnie.  It didn’t hurt that she was a childhood friend of Tupac’s, having met him when he lived in Baltimore, MD.

MC Eiht
Rapper MC Eiht (Frontman of the group Compton’s Most Wanted) would play the hardened O.G. (Original Gangsta) A-Wax.  Tyger William’s brother Ryan took the part of college athlete Stacy.  Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, and Charles S. Dutton Made cameo appearances, as did Ice Cube’s female protégé Yo-Yo.  In order to supplement an already extensive list of cameos, the Hughes brothers made use of their Bay Area connections.  Too $hort was cast as “Lew-Loc.”  Pooh-Man, a member of $hort’s “Dangerous Crew” collective at that time, appeared as the “Doc.”  Battle rapper Saafir would be Caine’s cousin Harold.  Though the film would be shot on location in South Central Los Angeles, Oaktown was most definitely in the house.   
That rap artists featured so prominently in Menace wasn’t simply “gimmick” casting.  Such performers played a key role in establishing the film’s vision.  Ice-T and Ice Cube might’ve seemed like the more obvious choices at the time.  They had become the “public face” of west coast gangsta music, and were largely responsible for its growing popularity.  They also lead to the charge in regards to “hood” movies.  New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood helped pave the way for Menace, after all. 

The “Ices” were undoubtedly essential to the west coast gangsta movement.  However, such high visibility might’ve worked to the detriment of Menace.  Too $hort, MC Eiht, Pooh Man, and Saafir were of a different breed.  The Hip-Hop press, which exhibited a strong east coast bias in those days, largely ignored them.  Their albums often got released with little fanfare or advance hype.  Such obstacles aside, each had developed a sizable following.  By the time Menace went into production, Too $hort had two platinum and two gold albums to his credit.  Those milestones were achieved quietly, and with little celebration by the aforementioned Hip-Hop media.  $hort and his ilk were unsung heroes representing a silent majority (IE “The Hood”).  That was the audience the Hughes Brothers had in their crosshairs. 

Menace was finally ready to go in front of the cameras.  Everything appeared to be in order when Tupac descended on the production like a hurricane.  His erratic behavior now played like a form of self-induced mania, or his own brand of performance art.  He immediately went into his usual shtick, sending the cast and crew into hysterics.  Jada Pinkett welcomed him with open arms.  Allen, who was charged with coaching the actors, made the usual accommodations for his friend.  However, he reasserted his authority when necessary. 

Tupac’s antics threatened to derail the shoot.  Allen instructed everyone not to respond to his shenanigans.  This eventually led to a confrontation between the two.  Things took an ugly turn when Tupac misconstrued Allen’s smile (A nervous tic brought on by tense situations) as a form of mockery.  Tupac squared off with Allen just before storming off the set.  While leaving, he instructed Allen to call his manager.   Allen later reached out to him, but his reconciliatory efforts proved fruitless.  New Line eventually fired Tupac, awarded the newly vacant role to Boyz n the Hood alumnus Vonte Sweet.  Shooting hadn’t even begun, and Menace had already lost its hottest commodity.

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