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The Menance of Nihilism : Untangling the Roots of the Violence Around Us--Onscreen and Off

August 29, 1993|Itabari Njieri | Itabari Njeri, a contributing editor of this magazine, is the author of "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone," winner of the American Book Award.

Yes, he did care whether he lived or died. His revelation came from the grave, however. And by the time this summer's most polemics-inducing gangsta pic, "Menace II Society," was over, and Caine, its teen-age protagonist and narrator, was wasted in a fusillade of pay-back violence, my attitude was: Sorry the system did so much to do you in, but I hope you, and the many far worse than you, are exterminated from anyplace I'm living. Caine and his posse do not represent our community, no matter what the media say. Their behavior is foreign to most black people except as victims of it.

Others in the room recoiled at my words, as if they'd suddenly turned a ghetto corner and, caught in a rush of summer wind, inhaled the stench of cooked urine and vomit. This aroused group of black musicians, writers, family and friends was debating the merits of "Menace," the latest cinematic reduction of black life, though, arguably, the most powerful indictment of autogenocide among African-Americans. Their physical reactions were momentary, however. After all, we were standing in the sunlit kitchen of a friend who kept a house in the "hood," but now owned a four-acre estate. The complexity of our individual lives and the diverse class and intellectual experiences that defined our families--most of whom still lived in the "hood," not suburbia--betrayed the narrowness of films like "Menace."

Set in Watts and South-Central L.A., the film opens with Caine and his psychotic homeboy, O-Dog, entering the store of a Korean-American man whose wife suspiciously follows them through the aisles as they shop. After some verbal jousting, the youths put down their cash and turn to leave, but O-Dog overhears the merchant mutter: "I feel sorry for your mother."

"What did you say about my mama?" O-Dog snaps. And in that moment, the taunts of the playground and the elements of racism, xenophobia, poverty, ignorance, machismo and greed combust in the head of a youth who might as well have been raised by wolves. O-Dog is compelled, as Caine looks on in shock, to murder the merchant, then rob him. And because the merchant's wife is too slow to turn over the surveillance videotape that captured the killing, she gets blown, and blown, and blown away, too. O-Dog, says Caine of his partner, is America's nightmare: "A young, black male who don't give a f--- about anything." From there, the film takes us to different levels of ghetto hell characterized by drugs and internecine warfare. This is familiar territory but rendered with chilling authenticity. And even though Caine is trying to get the hell out of Dodge, presumably to start a new life, when he finally falls, I shrug and think, "Adios."

"How could you relate to Clint Eastwood's character in 'Unforgiven' but not feel sympathy for Caine?" demanded one man who'd heard my odes to Eastwood's revisionist Western and its interpretation of the American scene of violence. Eastwood's William Munny is a reformed gunslinger and alcoholic-turned-pig farmer who, as the widowed father of two, decides to kill again. "I know more about why Caine does what he does than why Munny ever became a killer," he insisted with increased passion.

That I feel so distanced from Caine and company is largely a matter of art and social context. Both films, especially "Menace," suggest a kind of nihilism that the scholar Cornel West describes as "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world." But the unrelenting mayhem in "Menace" is so alienating that it can create in viewers an insensible detachment that mirrors the nihilism the film decries. I am further estranged by the film's marginal vision, which feeds the racist national obsession that black men and their community are the central locus of the American scene of violence.

"Unforgiven," among the finest American films ever made, artfully exposes the mythology of the Old West and, like "Menace," deglamorizes violence. Unlike "Menace," however, it suggests, without a didactic second, the broad landscape of American violence: from sexism and police brutality to racism.

The brutal verisimilitude of "Menace" may be a measure of the artistry of Albert and Allen Hughes, the 21-year-old African-American-Armenian twins who directed it. That I found this brutality to be the emotional undermining of the film, as well, does not mean I don't understand the Caines of the world.

I feel intimately acquainted with a wide spectrum of black life in America: from the physician who is my family patriarch to one of his daughters, an aunt who was lured into prostitution as a teen-ager during the Depression.

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