The Hughes Brothers on why the messages of Menace II Society remain important
Allen and Albert Hughes, aka The Hughes Brothers, sit in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘Youngest Filmmakers to Ever Direct a Major Hollywood Motion Picture in History.’ Creating short films in LA from the age of 12, and then directing music videos as teenagers, the fraternal twins made their major directorial debut at 21 with their 1993 breakout, Menace II Society. The half Armenian, half African-American brothers gained instant notoriety for their reckless attitude towards filmmaking, the media, and even other young artists (notably their beef with Tupac Shakur, originally slated to star in Menace).
Menace II Society brought an unprecedented rawness and truth about South Central Los Angeles, a year after the LA Riots, holding no reservations about the brutality, violence and nihilism surrounding the ‘hood. The movie is quintessentially 1993 - across its soundtrack, fashion and dialogue (the movie also holds the record for one of the highest “fuck” per minute rates, at 3.07 times per minute) – but still poses important questions 20 years later.
Now both 41, the twins have gone on to produce many society-challenging projects, both separately and as a duo (including blockbusters Dead Presidents, Book Of Eli, From Hell; TV series Touching Evil and documentaries Scratch and American Pimp). But the 1993 era holds an indelible place in their minds. Allen Hughes says, “For me, that was like the last of the great wave of creativity, in music and even in cinema.”
Allen Hughes: 1993 was the last era of a lot of things, particularly in LA. The whole pop culture scene was really bubbling, and probably in its heyday, in ‘93. Racial tensions were geeked out that year, too, in Los Angeles.
Albert Hughes: That time period is very vivid in my mind. I remember the day of the LA Riots. Back then was a very angst-ridden era - that’s how hip hop and ‘Fuck the Police’ came to being. Even though we weren’t gangsters, we identified with that attitude. We’d been harassed by enough police that we just had it out for society in general.
Allen Hughes: In ‘93 we couldn’t dream of a black president. Growing up and being black back then, we started to wonder: why are we in an even worse place than we were in 100 years ago? Why has it taken so long for this particular culture to gain footing? Instead of making a movie about glorifying all of the violence, we started back at the LA Riots, and the way the drugs were brought in, and the abuse and the system collapsing.
Albert Hughes: Another part of the reason we made ‘Menace’ was wondering: what’s wrong with the news and the reporting? Why are they only reporting the aftermath? Why are they not reporting the origin of where this all started? Anger was our main motivation.
Allen Hughes: Our mother always raised us to speak our minds and question authority. Early on in our career we definitely stood out because of it. We were young and a little naive. You definitely make enemies. Especially back then - we used to name names! We didn’t really have a grip on social politics.
Albert Hughes: We started questioning why we were like that. The interesting thing with us was that we were biracial kids growing up, but we were twins, so we always had each other. The black people didn’t like us and the white people didn’t like us, so we were outsiders. We developed this chip on our shoulders where it’s like - well fuck you, and fuck you too! We saw it all; we got the ugly side of both cultures. I say this to you sometimes - I like it when we have haters. It makes me mad. It makes me upset and I just wanna prove something.
If you jump to Chicago now, 20 years later, the city’s ridden with murder and violence, and I still have the same question now as I did back then. How did those kids get like that, and why did they get like this?
Allen Hughes: With ‘Menace,’ you got a punk rock film, in a way, as far as attitude, and you got these guys that have the same mindset. Starting off with a film like that, we put ourselves in a position where everyone expects all of our films to have a certain kind of social commentary, and maintain an edge and feel.’
Albert Hughes: I would say if you get success early, you gotta figure out how to handle that. We were 20 years old. Which would explain some of the issues with Tupac in ‘Menace.’ We were 20, he was 20. We were hot headed, he was hot headed. He said some stupid shit, we said some stupid shit. But the positives far outweigh the one negative. Tupac was just fucking fun to be around. He was just a funny, funny, very bright guy. What most people don’t know is that when we met him, he always had a newspaper or a book in his hands. Even though he dumbed down his language and lowered his IQ depending on the crowd he was in, he could run circles intellectually around anybody. Anybody. But you know, at that time with guys our age, from 15-20, everybody wanted to be a fucking gangster.
Allen Hughes: With Eazy E glamorizing and glorifying being a dope dealer, if you were a white dude, a black kid - everyone wanted to be selling dope. I knew rich motherfuckers that were selling dope! In LA in 1993 - since it had been culminating since 1985 - this whole art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art became the game in rap culture. The whole nation was captivated by it. I don’t think ‘Menace’ would’ve had as much impact today because of that climate.
But I think a lot of the themes and questions are timeless. If you jump to Chicago now, 20 years later, the city’s ridden with murder and violence, and I still have the same question now as I did back then. How did those kids get like that, and why did they get like this? We used the prism of black culture with ‘Menace,’ but when you look at all cultures, I still wonder why kids are shooting schools up and blowing shit up. Why did we breed the culture behind this? Hopefully those questions won’t continue to be timeless or timely. Hopefully. So if we’re talking about themes, I think ‘Menace’ stands the test of time. But if we’re talking about cinema, then - being a victim of a certain era, I don’t think it holds very well.
Albert Hughes: No, I don’t think it’s aged well. Even some of our filmmaking - our camera angles, our choice of dialogue - are very dated, in a way. We thought that black filmmakers back then (us included, if you wanna put us in there), got a pass on a lot of dramatic flaws. There wasn’t that much black cinema out there so if there was bad acting or bad dialogue, the white critics were almost afraid to pick up on it. Or they thought it was real! “Oh, it’s black so it’s real! This shit’s awesome.” So you kinda got a pass.
If anyone talked to us about our work, we pointed out the flaws right away. The two of us talked a lot of shit of course, but people mistook that for arrogance and cockiness, which it truly wasn’t. I remember the third day into filming ‘Menace,’ I looked at you and said, ‘Our careers are over. This movie is bad. It’s terrible.’ The scenes that we did that day were horrifically bad, but we got really lucky because we were able to cut them out of the movie. We did this one scene where Caine was in prison and there was this riot. We had to stage a fight - we didn’t know how to stage a fucking fight! There was no stuntman, you could see all the punches coming. The third day in, there was so much stuff we shot that I felt really bad about. We basically slept-walked through the rest of that movie because we thought, the third day in, it was over for us. We thought we’d had our shot and we blew it. We were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst!
Allen Hughes: In terms of 1993, we just did a special video-on-demand with an interview and an uncut version of ‘Menace’ in July. Plus I gained access to a bunch of images, in and around ‘Menace.’ I’m actually guilty of a guilty pleasure sin - I released those images on Twitter throughout July. You know, I think there was a creative burst and era in 1993 because after that is when the internet started coming on strong. And then obviously everything started being digitized and people started that steady slow march: we slowly, slowly started chipping away at the way things had been previously, whether it’s the way we access news and information, or the way we use technology.
Name: Allen Hughes
Place of birth: Detroit, Michigan
What you know: He’s the director/producer behind the 2013 neo-noir thriller ‘Broken City,’ starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, and directed Dr Dre’s ‘I Need a Doctor’ music video.
What you don’t: Allen lives “just outside of Los Angeles, about 30 minutes. I can’t live in that city!”
Name: Albert Hughes
Place of birth: Detroit, Michigan
What you know: The older twin by 9 minutes, Albert was commissioned by German game developer Crytek to produce a series of 6 shorts for video game ‘The 7 Wonders of Crysis 3.’
What you don’t: Albert’s lived in Prague for “9 years officially, but unofficially about 13."