January 10, 2013

RETRO ACTIVE: Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

by Nick Schager

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

[This week's "Retro Active" is inspired by Marlon Wayans' Paranormal Activity-spoofing A Haunted House.]

Paving the way for 2000's Scary Movie and the attendant spoof-current-cinema fad it ushered in, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood remains the best of Shawn and Marlon Wayans' parodic collaborations, even as it reveals the inherent limits of such comedy. The target of the Wayans' goofiness is "hood cinema," the class of '90s inner city dramas that included Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, Juice and New Jack City, all of which—along with the era's hip-hop videos—receive more shout-outs than need to be specifically detailed here. The particular way in which the Wayans poke fun at those influential African-American-centric stories may have been the prime selling point for its target audience at the time of its theatrical release. However, Don't Be a Menace was, and remains, less interesting as a compendium of allusions than as a ridiculous snapshot of cultural attitudes and stereotypes that are pricked with an amusingly blunt hand by the filmmakers. To be sure, there's more dated material here than in ten other comedies combined from the same year. And yet in its mockery of hot-button sociological issues, the film also remains surprisingly insightful, albeit in an unabashedly dim-bulb manner.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

If defending Don't Be A Menace on the grounds that it's actually astute sounds like a dubious proposition, let me be clear in admitting that the plethora of fart jokes, cheap sight gags, and gross-out nonsense (including a bit featuring Shawn sucking on nasty hairy toes coated in hot sauce that always stimulates the gag reflex) situates the film firmly on the side of juvenile stupidity. Still, the Wayans' movie manages to revel in, while simultaneously deflating through absurdity, the various gangsta poses and cornball moralizing that characterized discussions about race, poverty and inequity in '90s movies. Following Boyz's general template, the story concerns Ashtray (Shawn Wayans), a namby-pamby teen who returns to the ghetto to live with his father (Lahmard J. Tate), whom his well-adjusted mom (Vivica A. Fox) thinks can teach her son how to be a man. Back in his old South Central stomping ground, Ashtray reunites with his crazy gun-toting thug cousin Loc Dog (Marlon), who speaks in cartoonish slang and sports braids held together by a pacifier and dice, as well as Preach (Chris Spencer), an Africa-loving blowhard who hypocritically loves white women, and Crazy Legs (Suli McCullough), the nominal child-like idiot destined to suffer tragedy so others can learn valuable lessons.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

The notion that hood cinema glorified macho-idiot behavior while also proffering hoary platitudes in the most bald-faced manner receives hilarious ridicule via Wayans patriarch Keenen Ivory (creator and star of Fox's seminal In Living Color) repeatedly popping up after pedantic soliloquies to scream "Message!" As befitting such a project, jokes fly so fast and furiously that, even though the hit-to-miss ratio is unimpressive, there's enough ludicrousness to keep the proceedings lively long after they should have grown stale. That's largely thanks to the Wayans siblings, who feel no compunction about making themselves look like idiots while indulging in lame-brained lunacy like having Loc Dog profess his love for bunny slippers, or having white cops force the African-American protagonists to "Vogue." That later gag is one of countless moments in which Don't Be a Menace mires itself too heavily in the immediate pop-culture moment, thereby dooming it to feel out-of-date. But even in its cheesier moments—as when Ashtray's slutty paramour Dashiki (Tracey Cherelle Jones) introduces him to her litter of kids, all boasting different nationalities, and the tykes immediately ask, "Are you our daddy?"—the film at once brazenly owns up to, and makes fun of, clichés about inner city life.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

Ultimately, the film's main satirical focus is the type of egomaniacal masculine bluster glorified by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac. That's most tellingly realized in a homophobia-slamming bit in which Loc Dog, confronted by a homeless crazy person whose refrain is "I'll suck your dick, man!", stares the creep down as if about to blast him for this come-on, and then—after a deft cut—emerges from behind a truck buckling his pants, having obviously agreed to the proposition. Amidst its screamy Korean convenience store owners, pot-smoking grandma (227's Helen Martin), and general scatological silliness, the film turns macho bluster and substandard African-American parental role models into a source of constant off-the-wall humor. That occurs most potently through the antics of Ashtray's father, who's presented as a teenager no older than his son—in fact, Ashtray reads him (filthy) bedtime stories, and in the past apparently changed his diapers—and who, on separate occasions, cautions his son to not use a condom ("They take away all the feeling!") and to enjoy drinking and driving ("That shit is fun, man!"). In their parent-child dynamic, Don't Be a Menace manages pointed sociological censure without sacrificing its anything-goes comedic spirit—a feat that, its otherwise stale material notwithstanding, marks the film as a cut above its subgenre brethren.

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Posted by ahillis at January 10, 2013 5:44 PM