Hughes, Allen and Albert 1972–
Albert and Allen Hughes 1972–
Identical twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes became celebrities when they completed their first feature-length movie, Menace II Society. Their age when the film was released in May of 1993— they had just turned 21—put them in the company of celebrated young black directors like John Singleton, who was 23 in 1991 when Boyz N the Hood was released, and Matty Rich, whose Straight out of Brooklyn was released when he was 19. Menace II Society received a great deal of critical attention, most of it favorable; and on the strength of early reviews it was given national distribution. Made for approximately $3.4 million, the film grossed an estimated $21 million in its first two months at theaters.
The Hughes twins gained a lot of film experience at an early age: they began using a video camera at the age of 12. Their mother, Aida—who reared her sons alone after her divorce—had encouraged them to experiment with the family’s camera in the hopes that it would relieve their boredom and help them avoid more dangerous temptations, such as selling drugs and joining gangs. As the brothers told the Los Angeles Times, “We have been in situations where we wanted to sell dope and we were that close to doing it.… As corny as it sounds, by throwing us that camera when we were bored and about to sell drugs, she deterred us. ‘Why don’t you go make a movie,’ she said.”
Born in Detroit, Michigan, the Hughes brothers moved with their mother to Pomona, California, a “tough, gang-ridden community” according to the Chicago Tribune, when they were nine years old. Though their publicity machine has played up their inner-city experience, the brothers were never actually involved in gangs. Their childhood was a relatively normal one: as the Chicago Tribune reported, “their mother made sure they played in Little League and took karate and music lessons.”
By the time they were 14, both brothers had experience in film editing, sound editing, and scoring their own videos. They shot videos based on favorite television programs like “Star Trek,” “In Search Of …,” and “The Tonight Show.” They also recreated scenes from their favorite movies, including Brian De Palma’s Scarface and The Untouchables as well as Martin Scorsese’s GoodFel-las. As the Hughes brothers grew older, their mother moved the family to Claremont, a predominately white, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, so they could attend
Born April 1, 1972, in Detroit, Ml; sons of Aida Hughes. Education: Graduated from Claremont (California ) High School, 1989; Albert studied at Los Angeles City College, 1989–90.
Directors of over 30 music videos, c. 1990; directed feature-length film, Menace ii Society, New Line Cinema, 1993; signed with Underworld Records label/Capitol Records, 1993.
Addresses: c/o New Line Cinema, 116 North Robertson Blvd., 2nd floor, Los Angeles, CA 9004B.
a better high school. “I don’t want to say I live in Claremont,” Allen told the Chicago Tribune, reflecting both brothers’ dislike for the town. He felt that they didn’t get any respect there; he recalled being stopped on several occasions by police “for no apparent reason other than that [he is] black.”
While at high school, one of the brothers’ class assignments was to make a “how-to” video. While their classmates produced videos on how to make a chair or cook a dish, the Hughes brothers rebelled against such suburban topics with their video “How to Be a Burglar.” They later followed this with a documentary about selling crack cocaine. The brothers found a drug dealer near their high school who was willing to be photographed, and the video included actual footage of drug deals being made.
After both brothers graduated from high school, Albert spent a year a Los Angeles City College taking film classes. His studies inspired him and Allen to make the short film The Drive By. During the filming of a scene in which a sawed-off shotgun was used as a prop, the Pomona police arrived and shut down production. Even so, the short was completed and went on to become an underground hit. The film also got them an agent.
Their professional career started at Hollywood Records, where they directed a hip-hop music video for the group Digital Underground. They went on to direct some 30 music videos over a nine-month period for such groups as Tone-Loc, Tupac Shakur, KRS-One, Too $hort, and Yo-Yo. Some of their videos were notable for dealing with such issues as teen pregnancy and police violence.
The Hughes brothers had mastered music videos and were inundated with offers to do more, but they wanted to move on to the next level—feature films. While their work in music videos also attracted offers to direct feature-length movies for established studios, they decided to create their own project instead. They conceived the story of a black urban youth who becomes the victim of his environment. In late 1991, they asked 23-year-old Los Angeles screenwriter Tyger Williams to write the script.
At that point Williams had only written two unproduced scripts. He told the Los Angeles Times, “[Albert, Allen, and I] got tired of watching all the films about the kid that makes it out of the ghetto, and we wanted to do the story of all those who stay. If 20 percent make it out, then 80 percent don’t, and we wanted to tell their story.”
Williams finished the first draft within a month, and in subsequent drafts “the Hughes brothers helped flesh out the characters, drawing on their own experiences and on interviews with gang members and street hustlers,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Allen Hughes told the New York Times, “This movie has been in our heads since we were 15 [since 1987]: how kids become what they become, how the environment affects them.… Fifty percent of this is from-the-heart stories of people we know. The other is from interviews.”
Once the final screenplay was finished, they gave it to independent producer Darin Scott to shop around for a production studio. Artistic control of the project was important to the Hughes brothers, and they felt that offers from major studios attached too many strings. As the Hughes brothers told the New York Times, the major studios offered a lot of money, but their management styles seemed overpowering. The brothers objected to ending the movie with the 1992 Los Angeles riots— something several studios wanted them to do. The Hugheses signed a two-picture deal with New Line Cinema in the spring of 1992.
New Line Cinema is an independent producer and distributor of films that was founded in 1967. Although as a small producer it could only allot a modest initial budget, the brothers were given artistic control. New Line had approval over the final cut but didn’t interfere with day-today work on the film.
The production schedule for Menace II Society put the Hughes brothers under a lot of stress. They were given 32 days and $1.5 million to $2.5 million, according to different reports, to finish the film. The Los Angeles Times reported that the brothers were instructed by New Line to “be visual. Give us what you guys have done with music videos.” By the time it was finished, the film cost $3.4 million, according to New York Times estimates— still a very small budget by Hollywood standards.
As directors, the two brothers avoided many conflicts by “staying out of each other’s sphere of influence.” Albert was in charge of cameras, lighting, and other technical matters. Allen concentrated on directing the actors. As producer Darin Scott noted in the Los Angeles Times, “They focus on different things, but their overall vision is the same.” It was during the editing process that they tended to argue the most.
The Hughes twins felt their youth gave them an advantage over older directors when it came to relating to what their characters were thinking. However, they revealed to the Los Angeles Times that their young age also made it hard to appear authoritative with the young actors who made up the cast of Menace II Society. “Some people can’t look at you as the director; they look at you as the homeboy.” A few members of the cast had trouble understanding when the directors were serious. Jada Pinkett, who played a young single mother named Ronnie in the film, told the Los Angeles Times, “Sometimes on this set we go head to head, because everybody is at that age where they think that they are right, and no one is old enough to tell them that they aren’t.”
“Few films begin and end with such unsparing brutality,” noted the New York Times in its review of the R-rated Menace II Society. The Hughes brothers justified their reasons for including so much violence, profanity, and drug use in their film, telling the Times, “We wanted to show the realities of violence. We wanted to make a movie with a strong anti-violent theme and not like one of those Hollywood movies where hundreds of people die and everybody laughs and cheers.” They stressed that the film doesn’t glorify violence, but it does show that “people kill over money, women, turf. People kill to show that they’re men.”
Several of the film’s reviews described the opening sequence, in which a Korean convenience store owner and his wife are gunned down by a character named O-Dog, who exhibits psychopathically violent behavior throughout the film. ODog’s companion, Caine, is the film’s “anti-hero,” a more reasonable character who has just graduated from high school. Throughout the film, Caine acts as narrator, and the film depicts his descent into deeper levels of violence throughout the summer following his graduation.
Calling the Los Angeles ghetto “this concrete Vietnam,” the Hughes brothers told Parade that they wanted young people who saw the film “to get an understanding of how an environment can cause a perfectly good-hearted kid [Caine] to become a criminal.” They felt that while the individual may be 50 percent responsible, society is also half to blame. “If you let society run your life in those [ghetto] communities, you’re going to end up dead or in jail.… The problem,” they claimed, “[is] the cycle of violence, the cycle of neglect—no jobs, no education.” The filmmakers hoped that, after seeing the film, African American teenagers would “realize how crazy it’s getting.”
Reviews in a broad range of both newspapers and magazines helped Menace II Society achieve widespread national distribution. The New York Times actually printed three separate reviews of the film. It inspired thoughtful reviews in such magazines as the New Yorker, New Republic, and Artforum. While all of the reviewers commented on the film’s violence, they weren’t in agreement as to its effectiveness. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing for the New Republic, found the story was factual enough, but felt that the events unfolded like a newspaper story. Of the film’s violence, he wrote, “The only thing to say is that it no longer seems extreme. Once again we see what a gun does for a hopeless male’s ego and masculinity. Maleness kills, says the film, and is killed.”
Terrence Rafferty reviewed the film in the New Yorker and summed up his impressions: “This movie’s approach, which seems liberating at first, turns out to be in a strange way, a creative trap.… The juvenile, everything-sucks pessimism that Menace II Society ends with is reductive and depressingly facile.… When Menace II Society was over, I almost did believe it, and then resented the movie for tempting me to feel that way.”
If some reviewers found fault with Menace II Society’s story line, most were enthusiastic in their praise of the Hughes brothers’ directing ability. Writing in New York magazine, David Denby called the film “perhaps the most striking directorial debut in the history of black cinema.” He cited their “extraordinary camera technique and their control of pacing and rhythm” and noted that “the young directors … dramatize this catastrophic pattern with so much sober force … that one instinctively trusts and believes what the film is saying.”
Stanley Kauffmann also commended the brothers on their directing talent. He wrote, “They can take us into a new place with a sweep of arrival. They can dissect an event— the opening crime, for instance—with multiple views that coalesce into a larger-than-life whole. They can make a scene rise to a blackout significantly.”
Black cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who has worked with African American filmmakers Spike Lee and Julie Dash, characterized the Hugheses as “unnervingly precocious filmmakers” and commented in Artforum: “What’s redemptive about Menace II Society is its unflinching look at the despair and hopelessness underlying the rage so characteristic of young black male urban reality.” In addition, he found Menace II Society an unusual example of “contemporary black male articulation of victimization”—“unusual,” according to Jafa, “because victimization … was, in the black male psyche, feminized to such a degree that imagining ‘the male victim’ became a near impossibility.” Even though black males may be victimized by society, Jafa theorized, they deny their own victimization, because “to speak of one’s pain would be to acknowledge one’s vulnerability—vulnerability in this context being understood as weakness.”
With Menace II Society, the Hughes brothers achieved recognition for their directorial skills and distinguished themselves from other young black filmmakers. They told the Los Angeles Times, “[Menace II Society] is the flipside to Boyz N the Hood. Boyz was a great film about father and son relationships, while our movie is about those guys who didn’t have fathers.” Some reviewers noted that while Boyz N the Hood offered some promise of hope, Menace II Society was more nihilistic.
The Hughes brothers were reported to be working on a new film—to be called Public Enemez —but they don’t expect to have their second project completed before 1995. In addition, Capitol Records announced in October 1993 that the Hughes brothers would be applying their talents to a new record label, Underworld Records. Wanting to keep their options open, the brothers announced that they may work on projects together or separately. Their knowledge of contemporary urban life and their ability to bring it to the screen make it likely that films under the influence of either one or both of the Hughes brothers will remain controversial as well as sensational.
Artforum, summer 1993, p. 10.
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1993, p. 5–1.
Essence, July 1993, p. 44.
Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1993, p. 6.
New Republic, July 5, 1993, p. 26.
Newsweek, July 19, 1993, p. 52.
New York, May 31, 1993, p. 54.
New Yorker, May 31, 1993, p. 160.
New York Times, May 26, 1993, p. C13; June 10, 1993, p. C13; June 13, 1993; October 5, 1993, p. D20.
Parade, August 1, 1993, p. 7.
People, June 7, 1993, p. 19.
USA Today, June 9, 1993, p. D8.
Village Voice, May 25, 1993, p. 21.
Additional information taken from Menace II Society publicity package, New Line Cinema, 1993.
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