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

<i> Itabari Njeri, a contributing editor of this magazine, is the author of "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone," winner of the American Book Award. </i>

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.

When that former moll died recently, her funeral was held in the same parlor that had showcased two of her four sons. One had had a final “Hail Mary” intoned over his coffin after he’d died of a drug overdose, five years before his mother. The other’s coffin was shut five years before his brother’s, after parties to a drug deal that had gone bad years earlier settled the score by murdering him on a rooftop, a scenario similar to the one that leads to Caine’s demise.


A third son, a homeless addict whom I’d thought dead, stood in front of his mother’s coffin while my mother approached him. A nurse, she had delivered him in a Manhattan apartment 37 years ago, unwinding a strangling umbilical cord from his neck and giving the blue baby mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save him. But that day she whispered in his ear: “It would have been better if I’d let you die.”

When I tearfully embraced him, he begged in a whisper: “a couple of dollars, just a little something . . . . I’m going into a drug-treatment program next week . . . but . . . .” And when he’d finally been refused by everyone, he went off to sell the rumpled shirt, tie and pants his surviving brother had loaned him. Then he got a fix.

It was cold that day. I don’t know if he died that night or lives. But if he lives only to rob, assault or kill someone because of his desperate habit, well, have you read about the hopeless mothers who have been killing their adult junkie children? Hardly the answer, but one has to understand that some are simply lost to us.

I understand that Caine, the disturbingly passive and perplexed antihero of “Menace,” is pulled into the vortex of ghetto hell by a nation whose indifference and calculated injustice breed the widely lamented nihilism in segments of black America. The nation cannot allow nearly 50% of black men to be unemployed, as is the case in many African-American communities. It cannot let schools systematically brand normal black children as uneducable for racist reasons, or permit the continued brutalization of blacks by police, or have black adults take out their socially engendered frustrations on each other and their children and not yield despair and dysfunction.

This kind of despair is the source of the nihilism Cornel West described. Unfortunately, the black-male-as-menace film genre often fails to artfully tie this nihilism to its poisonous roots in America’s system of inequality. And because it fails to do so, the effects of these toxic forces are seen as causes.

In “Menace,” for example, Caine’s father acts out machismo and murder in front of his young son, and his mother, who shoots up in front of him regularly, finally overdoses. Framing the film’s action are the Watts explosion of 1965 and, as social subtext, the 1992 L.A. uprising. These uprisings come closest in the film to linking the rage and fatalism in black America to the issues of racism and economic and political exclusion. But it’s a weak link that perpetuates the notion of mindless lawlessness. In any case, remedies for such situations get reduced by politicians and pundits to simplistic formulas: “family values.”


The usual suspects have misinterpreted aspects of “Menace” to justify conservative dogma. “Being a black man in America isn’t easy,” says a black teacher in the film to a pair of young men. “The hunt is on and you’re the prey.” But the point the movie hammers home, says conservative commentator George Will, is that the predators are black men. Further, goes this line of reasoning, the movie should be required viewing for a large audience of American adults so that they get a dose of social realism and recognize that America’s resources are being misallocated. Rather than sending soldiers to keep peace in Somalia, better we attend to enforcing domestic tranquillity. If that means jobs, justice and responsible policing of neighborhoods, fine. But I doubt it.

What it means can be found in the mayoral campaign and election of Richard Riordan, the white-backlash candidate. “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around” was his slogan, and crime, in the aftermath of the L.A. uprising, was the centerpiece of his campaign. The subtext of the entire campaign was race, and the election became a referendum on the police. As one black political observer put it, “White folks said, ‘We’re tired of you black folks and we want someone to keep you in line.’ ”

This white backlash is nothing new, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967. “It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities . . . . The white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white America” on the question of racial justice. And what he feared a quarter of a century ago has come to pass with a vengeance: White racism would spawn a pathology among blacks that would be blamed on the inherent weakness of the African-American--a weakness whites would use to rationalize continued oppression.

King also wrote that leadership requires a tough mind and a tender heart. And so, I am sad and angry over the demise of the Caines of the world. But I see no need to sentimentalize these characters, whose belated epiphanies too often come after they are parties to the murder of innocent bystanders. Such scenes are the ubiquitous and fatal serendipity of days and nights in America’s urban reservations. And everyone in that sunlit kitchen, overlooking pristine acres of Japanese maple and pine, admitted they spent their childhoods in the ghetto trying to stay clear of these wounded destroyers.

Many in the black community assume that racists are going to misinterpret African-American life and art no matter what black people say or do. What’s important is that we get our own house in order, they say. I agree. But I’m disturbed by some of the formulas we discuss in our community as a prescription for racism. Revenge, for example.

I have nothing against principled struggles for liberation, nonviolent or armed. But the reactionary nationalism that has taken hold of many young African-Americans fails to analyze capitalism and class differences in America and embraces a kind of ideological racism analogous to the mythology of the Third Reich.


This mood of revenge was captured perfectly by activist-rapper Sister Souljah, who is writing a book about race in America: Two wrongs don’t make a right but sure make it even, she told us in the 1992 song “The Hate That Hate Produced.” It’s a biblical notion that settles like smooth, cheese grits in the belly of a black woman on the coldest, hungriest day of her life. And why not? What is the difference between Souljah’s neat nihilistic symmetry and the cathartic, avenging violence of William Munny in Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”?

“Unforgiven” paradoxically encourages us to empathize with a violent thug. Such empathy is easy, for he is, for a price, avenging abused women and then his black partner, killed while in police custody (familiar scenes of American violence). He acts out the two-wrongs-evens-the-score maxim.

If the Eastwood persona is allowed to play out this equation with apparent approbation by American audiences, why not a Sister Souljah? Is it simply a matter of who the (political) actors are and whose wrong is made right? What are the moral consequences of such nihilism?

We are enthralled and aghast as Eastwood’s Munny, in an inevitable but affecting star turn, comes into the saloon to confront the sheriff who let the dogs of chaos loose in the first place. He let justice go undone for a cut-up whore whose assailant is fined the loss of a horse instead of prison, thereby assuring no peace. An enraged sisterhood of prostitutes pools its pennies to hire Munny & Co. to kill the john.

Munny’s co-terrorist from the old days, Ned, is played by Morgan Freeman. Ned comes out of retirement to join Munny, then backs out before the deed is done. But it’s too late--he’s beaten to death by the charming, sadistic sheriff who is reminiscent of many a police chief come and gone. Ned is spiritually analogous to Caine and Munny to O-Dog, who does what any knucklehead would do when his homeboy is taken out. Even the score. But how deludingly palatable when this classic American scene of violence is played out thusly:

“I guess you are Three-Fingered Jack out of Missouri, killer of women and children,” says the sheriff, played by Gene Hackman.


“I have done that. Killed women and children,” answers a slightly drunken Munny, whose years of sobriety are busted when he learns Ned’s whipped-to-death corpse is displayed on the street in an open coffin. (In this town, they fine white men but make a side show of a black corpse as a social example of the price of lawlessness.) “I have killed most everything that walks or crawls an’ now I have come to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned. Now step aside, boys.”

And like the violence that wipes out Caine and much of his posse--save the wildest of the bunch, O-Dog--Munny murders nearly everyone in sight. When he emerges from the gun smoke, stumbling into a night that grows bleaker, frame by frame, tears run down his cheeks, and behind him the fuzzy image of a slowly undulating American flag can be glimpsed as he yells: “You boys better bury old Ned right . . . and you better not carve up nor otherwise harm no whores . . . or I will come back an’ kill more sonsabitches, hear?”


Is this not the ongoing scene of American violence: murdered black men on display, women whittled? Is William Munny’s cry not Sister Souljah’s maxim? And didn’t six out of 10 of you root a silent yeah when he played out its meaning?

Many tell me that they missed the image of the Stars and Stripes in that scene. They missed the clear suggestion that such violence has characterized the nation’s landscape throughout its history and that the targets of it have disproportionately been people of color and women. From the vantage point of the 1990s, one can see in “Unforgiven” as well, the loneliness fostered by the American ethos of rugged individualism that allows, then as now, children like Munny’s two tiny ones to be left “home alone” as he rides off for the reward of a final killing that will free them from hardscrabble poverty. One can argue that issues of class and psychological abandonment are at work here. Do such children grow up to be alcoholics and thugs like Munny? Do they grow up to be O-Dog or Caine? There is a connection between the larger social disorder and personal pathology that conservative ideologues refuse to acknowledge, but the social claustrophobia of a film like “Menace” obscures it.

Yet, in certain respects, “Menace” may be the more honest film because it never romanticizes any of its thugs. Watching “Unforgiven,” we fearfully catch our breath when an innocuous figure crouched in an alleyway contemplates immortality by killing Eastwood’s notorious badman, only to finally say, “I ain’t no deputy.”

Munny’s death would have been a fitting end, especially if we are intent on enforcing domestic tranquillity American-style. But he rides off, returning, we are led to believe, to the reformed life from which he lapsed. And aren’t we glad? At some point, haven’t most of us desired this nihilist’s version of karma?

It’s not new to suggest, of course, that this is the slippery slope down the path of endless social vengeance.


Wasn’t that the knowledge in the tearful eyes of William Munny? Had that cipher in the alley shot him, he would have expected it and thought it deserved. But it was unnecessary. His wretched countenance was not merely the mask of death, but of spiritual suicide.

The punks of “Menace,” too, are the spawn of multiple scenes of American violence that overlap class, ethnicity and region. The major players in this landscape demand law and order but refuse to control guns and murder Presidents, rock stars and nonviolent Christian martyrs in public with numbing regularity. In these scenes we find the spiritual pump for the nihilism infecting the American soul. And we invite the landscape of doom in “Menace” with an unforgivably arid national heart that seems willing to sacrifice democracy rather than allow equality.