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What Critics Missed About the Hood Movie Parody "Don't Be a Menace" and Why It Deserves Another Look

‘Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.’ Image courtesy of Miramax.
‘Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.’ Image courtesy of Miramax.

Back in 1996, American television director, producer, and writer Paris Barclay made his feature directorial debut with Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (or simply Don't Be a Menace). The script was written by Phil Beauman, Shawn Wayans, and Marlon Wayans — with the latter two also starring in the film. Keenon Ivory Wayans served as the producer and briefly appeared on screen at strategic moments.

A parody of the “hood movies” that came before it — think Menace II Society (1993), Boyz n the Hood (1991), etc. — the plot centers around two cousins who are exploring life in the hood of South Central Los Angeles. Critics trashed the film almost immediately, with many dismissing the work as a silly attempt at satire that fell flat with its audiences. But, did it? Since its release, the film has grown in popularity and developed a devoted cult following.

Fact is, most of the hood movies from the 90s were dramatic works that intended to show the difficulties being experienced by Black people in certain communities around America at the time. Arguably, they were trying to accomplish a lot of what hip hop and R&B was already doing, which may be why so many of these films feature musicians from the culture. References to drugs, violence, economic issues, and social unrest, are common themes in both.

In his review of Don’t Be a Menace, Roger Ebert states that he was a little let down by the movie. “It ridicules such goals as education, employment, responsible parenthood, staying off drugs, and staying away from gangs,” he writes. “My thought was, do we need this movie at this time, when violent death by drugs or guns is the leading killer of young black men under 25?” But he seems to have missed the point of the film, and that matters quite a lot.

Perhaps one of the reasons the film didn’t do well at the time of its release is because it arrived too soon. Hip hop music spilled out into the mainstream only a decade prior. Many of the artists then crossed over to movies, covering the same ideas in a different format, and they took themselves and their craft rather seriously. A film like Don’t Be a Menace could have been interpreted as an insult and/or attack on works that are meant to be thought-provoking.

But not all people with similar backgrounds rely on the same methods to deal with their reality. For many, laughter is the best medicine and, more importantly, a way to defuse conflict and start a conversation. To flip the script on Ebert, the movie can be interpreted as a social fun-house mirror -— not a true reflection, but one that’s close enough to the real thing to retain attention and show uncomfortable truths via satire, exaggeration, and observation. “Message!”

The Wayans are an entertainment dynasty from New York City. They mostly specialize in comedy, and excel at observational humor. And out of the ten siblings in the family, four appear in Don’t Be a Menace. Many of the family members were friends with the hip hop artists of the day. Marlon Wayans was a friend to both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, and was no stranger to the “harsh realities of living in the hood.” It’s safe to assume the same applies to his siblings.

Don’t Be a Menace also features cameos by actors from the hood films it parodies. This can mean that the comedic angle was taken with their blessing, or it can mean that critics often miss what the target community understands and takes away from the works. By 1996, audiences had sat through a lot of hood movies. One more dramatic take on the same issue may have been overkill, and this was a way to keep the conversation going while making people laugh.

But it also called out issues that plagued hood movies at the time. One of those is how these films depict women. While critics have argued that the film was unfair to women, it’s easy to counterpunch with the fact that Vivica Fox bluntly states how positive female characters don’t appear in most hood movies. But it also pokes fun at hip hop culture in more lighthearted ways, fashion, piousness, familiar dynamics, interracial relationships, and more, are all fair game.

Plus, the film has a killer soundtrack, featuring Lil’ Kim, Sugar-T, members of Wu Tang, and many others. Released via Island Records, it reached number 18 on the Billboard 200, number 3 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, and was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of American. It took a long time for the film to find its audience, or for the audience to find its film. Today, however, it's regarded as one of the funniest hood movies ever made.


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