Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Endangered Species: A 20th Anniversary Retrospective of ‘Menace II Society’ (Part 10)

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 X: Epilogue

Menace II Society was released on Wednesday, May 26th, 1993.  This gave it an extended five day opening that also included Memorial Day weekend.  Alas, this was also the same frame that Sylvester Stallone decided to launch a comeback.  Cliffhanger was an expensive Die Hard clone that would also be the first summer blockbuster out of the gate.  Surely, a low budget “urban” film didn’t stand a snowballs chance in hell against such a behemoth.   

Thankfully, New Line Cinema’s counter-programming strategy prevailed.  Though Cliffhanger won the weekend by a considerable margin, Menace held its own.  It would maintain that altitude throughout the entire summer.  At one point, it was even outpaced Jurassic Park at certain theaters.   By the end of its run, Menace had nearly octupled its production budget at the North American box office, grossing $27,912,072.

That phenomenon likely wouldn’t occur today.  Summer release schedules weren’t cluttered back in the early 1990’s.  The window between a film’s theatrical release and its home video release was considerably larger.  The DVD format hadn’t yet been introduced.  Internet piracy wasn’t a factor.  Neither were home theaters, smart phones, or portable media devices.  With good word of mouth, a movie could continue to do business for a long time. 

Successful though it was, Menace never managed to “crossover” as Boyz n the Hood had.  It was completely overlooked by The Motion Picture Academy.  By contrast, it received thunderous applause at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.  The Hughes brothers were treated like rock stars.  Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert included it on their “Ten Best” lists for the year, where it placed 5th and 8th, respectively.  

Tupac during his infamous Tirade on Yo! MTV Raps Today, with Ed Lover (Back left), Dr Dre (Back Right), John Singleton (Front Right)

Meanwhile, Tupac’s thirst for revenge proved insatiable.  Physical retaliation wasn’t enough for him, so he resorted to public humiliation.  Sometime after the altercation, he and John Singleton appeared on Yo! MTV Raps Today to promote Poetic Justice.  On camera, Tupac accused the Hughes brothers of firing him from their film in a “roundabout way.”  He then bragged of having “beat their behinds” in the street.  Fearing that Tupac might be incriminating himself, cohost Ed Lover clasped a hand over the rappers mouth.  Unfortunately, it was too late. Allen Hughes had already filed suit against his former friend. 

Flash forward to the winter of 1994.  Menace was poised to make its debut on home video, which would further solidify its status as an instant classic.  Meanwhile, Tupac’s criminal profile had risen farther still.  In October of 1993, he shot two off duty cops in Atlanta (Charges were later dropped).  Later that same year, he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in New York.  Both situations were still unresolved on February 1st, 1994.   That was the day he appeared at the Los Angeles County Municipal Court to answer the assault and battery charges brought against him.  The Hughes brothers arrived with a quartet of Fruit of Islam bodyguards.

Journalist Dream Hampton was also in attendence.  She was doing an extensive article on the Tupac at the time.  It was called “Tupac: Hellraiser,” and was published in the September 1994 issue of the Source Magazine.  An entire section of the piece chronicles the events at the courthouse that day.  The article paints Tupac as a manipulative, mischievous antagonist.  That’s not to say that Ms.  Hampton truly condemns him in any way.  To the contrary, she seems somewhat taken with him.  That perspective seems to inform her recollection of events at the courthouse.

Per Hampton’s account, Tupac was in full schoolyard bully mode.  In the courtroom, he stared the Hughes brothers down until the clerk called the case.  When the proceedings were moved to another location, he rushed outside to antagonize the Fruit of Islam sentries standing at the doorway.  As the Hughes brothers left the building, Allen began to taunt Tupac.  This supposedly led to a verbal altercation. 

At this point, Ms. Hampton claims that Tupac singlehandedly backed the Hughes brothers and their Fruit of Islam guards against a wall.  He then threatened to sick gangbangers on the Fruit of Islam.  When the sheriff’s office showed up to handle the situation, they threw him against a wall.  He then clammed up, claiming the Hughes brothers to be the aggressors.

The Fruit of Islam

Considering all that Farrakhan and company have faced over the past 57 years, it’s highly doubtful that they’d fear a lone “gangsta” rapper and his supposed street ties.  Dream’s claims seem even more dubious considering Tupac’s slight physical stature.  She alleges that after this incident, two of the Fruit of Islam guards pulled Tupac aside to express their love for him and condemn the Hughes brothers as cowards. 

After the proceedings, Tupac courted the press.  He denied having any direct involvement with the Rolling 40’s Crips who came to his aid on that fateful day: "Them niggas [the one who jumped in once the fight began] knew them [the Hughes brothers] just like they knew me—from around the way. That wasn't my video. That was a Spice One video. I got them niggas started making videos anyway. Plus, I came ready to kick both they asses myself!  Those other niggas didn't get down with Thug Life until after that shit happened."

During his March 8th, 1994 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, Tupac further elaborated on the situation.  This time, he described it as merely an argument that got out of hand.  He chalked the whole thing up to a feud between the Hughes brothers and John Singleton.  He balked at the idea that he posed a physical threat to either of the Hughes brothers.  By his logic, this matter would have been better handled amongst the parties involved than in a court of law.  
Tupac copped to the charges and was found guilty of assault and battery.  A lenient judge sentenced him to 15 days in jail.  Ed Lover’s fears were confirmed, as Tupac’s rant from Yo! MTV Raps was used as evidence against him.  After the hearing, he addressed reporters and cameramen.  He chalked everything up to a rather costly learning experience, and advised his friends and fans to do the same.  It was akin to the hollow “life lessons” offered at the end of episodes of syndicated cartoons from the 1980’s, like G.I. Joe or He-Man.    

For all of the trouble it caused, Tupac’s against the Hughes brothers ended with a whimper.  As always, Vibe Magazine got the scoop first.  Before serving his sentence for Sexual abuse, Tupac gave reporter Kevin Powell a “Jailhouse exclusive.”  It became the cover story for the April 1995 issue.  In it, Tupac offered details on the Quad studios ambush that left him with multiple gunshot wounds.  He famously implied that both Sean “Diddy” Combs and The Notorious B.I.G of had prior knowledge of the attack.  That revelation led to the single ugliest beef in Hip-Hop history.  However, Tupac revealed an apologetic side to his character:
I even apologized to Quincy Jones for all the stuff I said about him and his wives. I'm apologizing to the Hughes Brothers...but not John Singleton. He's inspiring me to write screenplays, because I want to be his competition. He fired me from Higher Learning and gave my idea to the next actor.

Ironically, Tupac mended fences with the Hughes brothers just before ending his relationship with John Singleton.  With that, the partnership of Black cinema’s answer to De Niro and Scorcese came to a premature end. 

After his death, Tupac would go on to become the single most revered and imitated rapper of all time.  He is currently one of the biggest selling posthumous artists in history.  Despite their feud, Allen considers Tupac to have been both a friend and an extraordinary talent.  He referred to the late rap star as “the heir to Denzel.”

Menace II Society is a revelation.  None of the related controversies or behind-the-scenes debacles has diminished its power.  Still, the making of the film is a story of survival.  It shows that a truly inspired vision can withstand just about anything, so long as the people behind it are both capable and resilient.  Its message continues to endure in the modern era.  Countless rappers have referenced it, and continue to do so.  The Hughes brothers have since gone on to have a varied if sparse filmography.  They’ve worked with the likes of Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, and Russell Crowe.   

Oprah Winfrey reportedly hated the film upon seeing it.  That’s just as well.  Her tender sensibilities represent the morally rigid worldview that keeps Caine and his ilk perpetually marginalized.  To those who think that Black youth should be weaned solely on visions of hope and empowerment, Menace II Society most certainly is not the film for you.   Menace is a movie for only the bravest and most thoughtful viewers.  It should be treasured, not reviled.  Thank you, Tyger Williams.  Thank you, Allen and Albert Hughes.  You guys changed the world.


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