Recent absence notwithstanding, I really love working on this site. Besides allowing me to write about catalog films—which I way, way prefer to writing new movie reviews—the site also lets me spackle holes in my movie lore. If I hadn’t written about Arthur Penn, would I have seen Mickey One? Without the Stanley Kubrick Project, I could have missed Killer’s Kiss.
Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like I’m missing a part of my mission. The way I see it, I’ve got two major problems.
1.) The only directors I’ve written about are all obvious, expected guys–directors very easy to love.
2.) My list is just a bunch of old and/or dead white dudes.
That ends today. I think there’s room on this site for directors I’m just not that into, directors who may have the potential for greatness, but who are still struggling to get all of their gears turning in the same direction. How about directors who, although mired in B-movie budgets, refuse to settle for the paychecks of quantity and instead choose projects that speak to their passions? Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for that.
The Hughes Brothers fit that description. I was too young to see it, but I recall the excitement surrounding Menace II Society and the explosion of crime films and young, black directors that appeared in the early 90s after Spike Lee kicked open the door. Directors like the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton became synonymous with a new culture of filmmaking, deeply in touch with an underrepresented group of people, electric anger flying off the screens. I remember the murmur of surprise when they signed on to helm the adaptation of Alan Moore’s Victorian horror tale, From Hell, because it wasn’t the kind of film a “black director” would normally accept. I also remember the limp disappointment when that film failed to stick the landing, as if somehow the idiots had been proven right.
As the ghetto crime genre dissipated in a piff of cliché, the Hughes Brothers followed the career path of contemporaries like Singleton and even Lee by positioning themselves as purveyors of interesting genre films. Their movies generate conversation, but rarely widespread critical acclaim. The brothers are stylists, but as filmmakers, they’re still chasing the success of their debut film. They’ve rarely gotten further than “almost.”
Much of the Hughes identity is twined with their unique background. Sibling teams are not uncommon, but twins? Even better, black twins? You can almost hear Hollywood stumbling over itself to glomp such diversity, and that’s without the Hughes’ Armenian and Iranian heritage, which informs their work as clearly as their black roots and connections to L.A. culture. They defy simple definitions. There’s nothing Hollywood about the films they make; there’s nothing Hollywood about them. In a predominantly white business, the Hughes Brothers are the outsiders, and their resulting work feels unique, loud, and chunky, filled with conflicting influences, conflicting ideas, and, yes, even sibling rivalry and love.
Perhaps it’s this narrative that first attracted me to the Brothers. Even though I’ve never loved any of their films, I’ve liked a few and I’m happy to root for them. I’m a Hughes Brothers cheerleader. Albert Hughes was attached early to the threatened whitewashing of Akira, and his involvement gave me some reason for optimism. I believed that, no matter the quality of the result, it would at least be interesting. Once he left, news of the project became progressively dire until the film recently, mercifully, collapsed completely (for now, at least). In recent years, the brothers have worked more often apart than together and it’s at least possible that the days of the Hughes Brothers as a directing team are at an end.
So, before Hollywood realities sever the team forever, I’m making a commitment to the Hughes Brothers. As their career develops, I’ll add their new films to this project. But first, let’s review the story so far.
Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes
April 1, 1972 in Detroit, Michigan (Albert is older by 9 minutes)
Aida Hughes (mother)
The Hughes spent their early years in Detroit in the care of their Armenian-American mother, Aida, who divorced their father (a man Albert describes as a “street hustler”, and whose name I couldn’t find in my research) when the brothers were only toddlers. Aida moved her family to Pomona, California by 1981 to seek new opportunities, but the rough culture in Pomona threatened to draw the twins into drugs and gang activity. To give her boys a distraction, Aida acquired a home video camera and gave it to them to explore. The gift changed the course of their lives. Soon, the boys were shooting short films together, recreating moments from favorite movies and television shows. They caught the bug.
Aida moved the twins to the white, upscale LA suburb of Claremont to attend high school, and it’s here that the boys began to chafe with the reality of being the wrong color. Frustrated with the Claremont culture and the increased scrutiny of law officers and authority figures, the boys channeled their frustration into their films, producing a class project called How to be a Burglar and a homemade documentary about a real-life crack dealer.
Albert eventually attended film classes at Los Angeles City College and used this experience—as well as their short film The Drive-By—to land the brothers a job producing music videos at Hollywood Records. Their talent and unique perspective earned them jobs with a number of high profile West Coast rap artists, most notably Tupac Shakur.Their friendship with Tupac helped open doors for the brothers, and their debut feature, the violent Menace II Society, premiered in 1993 to critical acclaim and notoriety. Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes conflicts derailed their relationship with Tupac. The brothers had originally promised Tupac a significant role in the film, but attempted to recast the rap star in a smaller role. Tupac responded by sending a group of Crips gangsters to assault the brothers. Tupac was arrested and served jail time for the incident.
After the success of Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers remained in the crime genre for their followup, Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp, before moving into horror with the adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell. The twins took a long hiatus before their next project, The Book of Eli, a move Albert attributed to sibling fatigue.
First off, when you live the life of a two-headed mutant monster, you both must agree on one thing before you can do it. That said, these mutants really needed a break from each other and, figuratively speaking, we went to the doctor and were surgically removed from one another. We’ve both led different and separate lives since that point, working apart for a bit and, in general, finding ourselves without the confusion of people lumping our personalities together. This sometimes is the most difficult thing about being a twin.
- As a directing duo, the twins split duties. Albert handles the camera and the technical production issues, while Allen works with the actors
- Drawn to stories about urban culture, crime, and poverty
- Heavily stylized visual design with deep, saturated colors and exaggerated cameras.
- Influenced by 1970s western/kung fu/action cinema
Number of Eligible Films:
Although the Hughes Brothers have made their name as a co-directors, they’re branching further and further into solo territory. While I may eventually include solo Hughes films—such as Allen’s Broken City, due sometime next year—solo TV movies and TV shows are, as usual, out.
Therefore, the joint Hughes TV show Touching Evil or Allen’s Knights of South Bronx won’t be a part of the project. Future films will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but for now I’m inclined to include anything directed by the pair or by either brother alone, as long as it’s theatrically released.
Connection to the Previous Project?:
Want to stare at the internet until your eyes bleed? Try to find an simple connection between Arthur Penn and the Hughes Brothers. After hours of looking and scrolling through IMDB, this is all I could find:
- Penn was in California in 1965 for photography on The Chase, and he got caught in the Watts Riots. Years later, the Hughes Brothers used the Watts Riots as historical context for their film set in Watts, Menace II Society.
- Arthur Penn’s favorite editor, Dede Allen, also worked on Denzel Washington’s John Q. Washington later starred in The Book of Eli! So Penn and the Hughes’ are at least two degrees of separation away!
This is a short project, based entirely on my belief that the Hughes Brothers have great films in them, regardless of their relative successes and failures thus far. In each of my write-ups, I’ll devote space to what works like crazy in the film and what falls flat. Later on, I’m thinking about doing something a little different, taking time out of the countdown at some point to post a long essay about one overlooked aspect of their work that I find really fascinating, but that requires its own full post to get at.
(Note: The Hughes Brothers Projects is complete. Please enjoy the links below!)
The Hughes Brothers Project
1. American Pimp (1999)
2. Menace II Society (1993)
3. The Book of Eli (2010)
4. From Hell (2001)
5. Dead Presidents (1995)