Monday, May 20, 2013

Endangered Species: A 20th Anniversary Retrospective of ‘Menace II Society’ (Part 6)

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! 

Part VI:  Touring The Inferno

Tupac’s melodramatic departure from Menace II Society could have easily shut down the production.  It was his participation that convinced New Line Cinema to give it the green light.  Luckily, they didn’t pull the plug.  Shooting commenced as planned.  However, there was another issue to contend with.  The 1992 riots had left South Central L.A. in shambles.  Nevertheless, it remained a complex labyrinth of gang territories.  The Eastside Grape Street Watts Crips had a direct hand in the truce that immediately preceded the Riots.  Unfortunately, it didn’t apply to everyone.  The Jordan Downs Public housing projects was one of many treacherous locales on the shooting schedule. The Hughes brothers might as well have been filming in the Persian Gulf just after desert storm.

In order to fully appreciate the delicacy of the situation, some context is needed.  The Black gangs of L.A. have a complex history.  During the 1940’s, many African Americans fled the Jim Crow south en route to the City of Angels.  WWII had caused a defense boom, creating plethora of new jobs.  Upon their arrival, Black migrants faced severe housing discrimination.  They were corralled into south and west L.A.  As they moved into Compton and Watts, Whites retreated to the suburbs.  During the 50’s, Black teens who wandered into those same suburbs were regularly accosted by their White counterparts.  In reaction to this, Black youths formed “mutual protection clubs.”  These clubs provided the foundation for the gang scene that would later emerge. 

Angry White teens weren’t the only threat facing Black Agelenos.  Fallout from the “Bloody Christmas” Scandal of 1951 (Dramatized in the film L.A. Confidential) allowed police chief William H. Parker to make radical changes to the LAPD.  He wanted his officers to have relative autonomy from government.  He also used them as a Gestapo in Black and Latino neighborhoods.  To ensure that order was maintained, he recruited heavily in the Jim Crow South.  Plenty of White men signed up for the chance to keep uppity Negroes in line.

Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, founding members of the Black Panther Party.
By 1965, L.A’s Black community had quintupled in size.  This rapidly growing population found itself beset from all sides.  The situation came to a head in 1965 with the Watts riots.  A year later, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was born in Oakland, CA.  Their considerable reach extended well into the ailing Black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.  Their brand of leadership was sorely needed, as they began taking their frustrations out on each other.  The Panthers infused them with a new found political consciousness and a sense of militancy.   All of these post-riot developments coincided with an influx of illegal drugs, likely spurred by the nationwide heroin epidemic.  It was into this environment that the Bloods and Crips were born.

The Crips were founded in 1969 by Raymond Washington and Stanley “Tookie” Williams. Williams was from the West Side of South Central, while Washington was from the eastside.  They formed an alliance which united many of the stragglers and smaller gangs from both areas.  They initially dubbed their organization the “Cribs,” in reference to the age of its membership.  Members began accessorizing their wardrobe with walking canes, affecting a pimp strut when doing so.  In accordance with that aesthetic, they became known as the “Crips” (Short for “cripples”).  Founding member Buddha added a personal touch that would become the gang’s chief signifier: A blue railroad handkerchief worn as a bandanna.  Eventually, a gang called the Pirus left the fold.   They then aligned themselves with the enemies of the Crips.  They eventually called themselves “Bloods,” a term of endearment popularized by Black veterans returning home from Vietnam.  Per the name, they adopted the color red as their signifier.

In addition to the color coded motif, both gangs developed their own customs, rituals, and traditions. The extremes they went to in order to distinguish themselves from one another knew no bounds.  The situation becomes even more complex when looking at how both gangs are structured.  Each represents a larger entity that breaks down into smaller factions called “sets.”  Each set is named after their respective neighborhood.  They can also take the name of a particular street or landmark.  For example, the East Side Kelly Park Compton Crips named themselves after the park on their side of town.  Furthermore, two different sets can technically be part of the same gang, but also be bitter rivals.  Some have deadly beefs that stretch back for years, if not decades. 

Throughout the 1970’s, gang warfare escalated.  Walking through the wrong hood was an offense punishable by death, likewise for wearing the wrong color or using the wrong slang.  When confronted, one was often asked a simple question: “What set you claiming (IE What neighborhood/gang are from)?”  Claiming neutrality could have worse consequences than identifying oneself as an enemy.     

During the 1980’s, the crack trade allowed gangbangers access to military level ordnance.   Assault rifles and submachine guns became a part of their arsenals.  Certain members ascended to the upper echelons of the dope game.  Bloods who did so where known as “Ballers.”  Crips who did so were called “High Rollers.”  Both were often targeted for kidnapping by members of their own set.  By the early 90’s, gang warfare had reached ebb tide.  The 1992 riots brought something of a cooling off period.  However, the gangs still remained.

Allen and Albert Hughes ventured into “No Man’s Land” with cast and crew in tow.  As residents of Pomona, they were familiar with Gang protocol.  That being the case, they treaded carefully.  Safe passage had to be negotiated with the O.G’s (Original Gangstas) of each respective area.  These veterans acted as guardian angels.  Certain residents of Jordan Downs were hired as emissaries and extras.  All carried out their duties to the fullest.  There were some tense moments, but each was resolved before coming to a head.  The many gang rivalries presented some unique challenges.  For example, cast member MC Eiht is an affiliate of the Tragniew Park Compton Crips.  Many scenes required him to be completely surrounded by members of Grape Street.  How such issues were handled is unknown, though the Watts truce might have come into play.

Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dogg (Larenz Tate), and A-Wax (MC Eiht)

Albert had to film many scenes with a hand-held camera.  In hindsight, this might seem like a purely stylistic choice that anticipates the rise of the “found footage” genre.  In actuality, it was born out of budgetary constraints.  Fancy rigs and camera equipment just weren’t an option.  The production designer wanted the color motif to reflect the gang situation in LA.  However, the screenplay made no mention of the Bloods or the Crips.  Neither Tyger Williams nor the Hughes brothers wanted to limit the film’s chances in other markets, by making things too specific to L.A.  Menace had to play everywhere in order to recoup its budget.  Ironically, just a month after the film’s release, the original chapter of the United Blood Nation was founded on the Riker’s Island jail complex in New York City. 

For better or worse, the Hughes brothers were living the dream.  Whether or not their ultimate vision would survive the shoot had yet to be seen.  However, their ordeal had not yet finished.  A long departed cast member was waiting in the wings to exact vengeance on a former friend.     

No comments:

Post a Comment