Conventional wisdom has Hollywood discovering "traditional values," ratcheting down the violence quotient and rolling out PG movies to capture the family market. Exhibits A through F: Six of the current top-10 money-making movies are rated PG or PG-13.
Yet in their happy midst sits "Menace II Society," as sad and savage a depiction of urban violence as you'll ever see, currently the ninth best-selling movie in the country. Without box-office stars or advance hype and promotional tie-ins, the R-rated "Menace" has become one of those rare movies that has everyone from George Will to your next-door neighbor talking:
Is its portrayal of alienated, trigger-prone black youth realistic or stereotypical? With so much real-life violence, who needs this much reel-life violence as well? And should African-American movies be judged by different standards when it comes to inflammatory images?
"It was violent, but it demonstrated what happens every day. That's what it is now in the neighborhood -- drugs, money and killing. Why should they hide that?" says Carrie Powell, 57, a Baltimore woman who saw the movie last weekend.
"To be frank, I think it was a little excessive," says Cornell Morsell, 37, also of Baltimore. "It is something happening in the streets now, but I think it [perpetuates] a stereotype that that's all black people can do -- shoot, kill and sell drugs."
"Menace II Society," was made by 21-year-old African-American twin brothers and features two Baltimore actors, Jada Pinkett and Charles "Roc" Dutton. It's about Caine, a basically decent kid who, nonethe less, gets swallowed into the world of drive-by shootings and eye-for-an-eye killings. Unlike movies such as "The Godfather" series, there's nothing romantic or balletic about its killing scenes; furthermore, audiences generally have not cheered those scenes, as they have in previous movies like "Boyz N the Hood," but seem rather stunned into silence.
Perhaps because of that thought-provoking quality, "Menace II Society" has drawn praise from the most unlikely quarters. The conservative Mr. Will, for example, called it an important film that could help convince the country that its "peacekeeping" missions might better be directed at home rather than in Somalia or Macedonia.
High praise from Medved
And, even more surprisingly, it merited a "this is a knockout movie" blurb from Michael Medved, the critic whose influential book, "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values" (HarperCollins, 1992), helped spark the current sentiment in the industry that filmmakers need to produce more family fare.
"It manages to do something different from the other South Central L.A. movies. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year," Mr. Medved said in a recent telephone interview from Chicago, where he films his "Sneak Previews" show for PBS. "I'm more disturbed by the violence in 'Dennis the Menace' than the violence in 'Menace II Society.' "
Frequently interrupting his discourse on movie mayhem to tell his 4-year-old daughter to "put all the dollies away" or "brush your teeth -- now," Mr. Medved says he's not anti-violence as a matter of course, but anti-gratuitous violence, especially in movies geared toward youngsters.
He took his 6-year-old to see the PG-rated "Dennis the Menace" and was appalled by its "sadistic," "Home Alone"-style violence in which Dennis indeed menaces a burglar, torturing and setting him afire.
Still, he does see signs that Hollywood is responding to the call for less-violent movies. While his book can take some of the credit, the bottom line is also a factor: A recent study by an entertainment industry consultant found PG and PG-13 movies are more likely to turn a profit than their more violent counterparts.
At a meeting of movie operators and distributors in March, for example, Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton jumped on the bandwagon and drew applause when he called for more family-oriented movies. Practicing what he preached, Columbia's big summer movie, "Last Action Hero," was purposely toned down to give it a PG-13 rather than the usual R rating that past Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles have received. (The movie, however, is a box-office bomb, although some observers attribute that not so much to the PG-13 rating as to its problematic plot line.)
Never abandon violence
The success of "Menace II Society" shows that, despite Hollywood's current leanings toward family-oriented movies, filmmakers will never abandon violent movies -- especially if they're both artistically and financially attractive, one movie executive believes.
"I'm not saying that Hollywood's just giving lip service to concerns about violence in the movies, but no one's going to turn down a good story just because it's an R," says Ed Russell, a senior vice president at Tri-Star, which has hit box-office bonanzas with both this year's PG "Sleepless in Seattle" and last year's almost-beyond-an-R "Basic Instinct." "It has less to do with the rating than the story. And, you will always have the independents making those kinds of movies."
"Menace II Society" is distributed by the independent New Line Cinema. Its current No. 9 ranking in ticket sales is surprising given that it opened five weeks ago at only 464 locations (now up to 581). By comparison, other top 10 movies are in wider
release, in the 1,200- to 2,400-screens range.
"Menace" also stands apart because its focus on black urban violence is harsher and more documentary-like than the lighter, summery offerings now playing. And that makes the debate over the movie spill into a debate over real-life issues as well. For some, the problem is so many black films feature violent characters and situations -- "Juice," "Straight Out of Brooklyn" and "New Jack City" are frequently cited -- they can present a
skewed view of an entire race in this country.
Not a balanced portrayal
Halford Fairchild, a psychologist who lives about a mile from the Crenshaw neighborhood portrayed in "Menace II Society," says it's a matter of balance -- or rather, the lack thereof.
"Scarcely a night goes by that I don't hear gunshots here," says Mr. Fairchild, a member of an American Psychological Association (APA) task force on television and society. "But at the same time, the levels of violence portrayed in those movies are grotesque. People who aren't African-American and see this portrayal come away with a reinforcement of the stereotype that African-Americans are violence-prone.
"Wouldn't it be great," he continues, "to have a movie about a kid from South Central becoming a chess champ or going to Harvard and becoming a success? But those kinds of projects never get off the ground in Hollywood. Violence is what sells."
Mr. Fairchild isn't swayed by the argument that some of the black gang movies push an anti-violence message. Or, if such a message exists, it doesn't always get through, he says.
" 'Boyz N the Hood' was billed as an anti-gang movie, but I thought the whole movie exalted gang activity and gang rivalry. And the audience I saw it with, an African-American audience, cheered at African-Americans being cold-bloodedly murdered," he says incredulously.More stress on children
Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist and former adviser to the Cosby" TV show, worries that violent movies add yet another layer of distress on an already vulnerable group of children.
"Many of the inner-city children have witnessed violence in their community; it's part of their experience, it's not remote or distant. So what it does when they see these films is reinforce the notion that the world is violent and the use of violence is part of the natural order," Dr. Poussaint says.
The connection between violent movies and violent behavior has long been discussed. The APA has estimated that by the time children reach seventh grade, they have seen about 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other violent acts on TV or in the movies. Furthermore, various researchers have found, such violent fare in the media translates into aggressive behavior in real life as well.
Not everyone goes that far. Mr.Medved, for one, believes violence on the screen may contribute but doesn't single-handedly cause violence on the streets. And others balk at what they see as a double standard when it comes to black films.
"Inevitably, when people talk about violence and its negative effects, it's only in the context of black films. It's never in the context of, say, 'Last Action Hero,' " says Reginald Hudlin, who with his brother, Warrington, has made "Boomerang," "House Party" and the animated "Bebe's Kids."
While his movies are decidedly non-violent, he defends "Menace II Society," saying its use of violence is instructive, not glorifying.
Violence is a cancer in society
"The film illustrates there is a cancer in American society. There can be exploitive uses of violence . . . but this one shows what happens when you get shot. You don't get up and run -- you spit up blood," Mr. Hudlin says.
Unlike some predecessors, "Menace" opened with little turmoil. Showings of "Boyz N the Hood," for example, resulted in two murders and about 30 shootings nationwide.
"It's not 'Boyz N the Hood,' " says Albert Hughes, who with his twin, Allen, directed "Menace." "We had the idea a couple of years ago but when 'Boyz N the Hood' became such a hit, I put it on hold."
As for whether filmmakers have to answer for the reaction to their movies -- either in violent behavior or the image of African-Americans that they create in viewers' minds -- the Hughes brothers see a different sort of responsibility.
"There is a responsibility to make the movie you want to make, and not to be [politically correct]," Mr. Hughes said during an interview at the Cannes Film Festival. "We should be able to do whatever we are able to do. If you're going to do a gangster film, do it right."