Archive for category The Hughes Brothers
When I chose The Hughes Brothers for the site I knew it wouldn’t be an easy project, but nobody ever said that writing about movies in my underwear from the warm embrace of deeply comfy chair would be easy. Now that the hardship is at an end, however, I’m left with the belief that this project has been absolutely vital to accomplishing the mission of this site. What good does yet another movie website do anybody by clinging to the accepted classics? Anybody can do Stanley Kubrick (and I did!) but film is about so much more than the winners and the gods.
I’ve often said that if I were to teach film history I would open the class with a showing of James Isaac’s Jason X, because I think that movie tells you everything you need to know about why you should love film. Jason X is a terrible film, natch, but even the least film is like a time capsule telling us about when it was made, why it was made, and about the people who made it (Jason X also has moments of sincere, intentional hilarity). Jason X may fail as a horror film, but it fails upward. The film is a prime example of an entire decade of horror—the 90s and its post-Scream, post-Buffy self-reference—and it lampoons a horror icon that had lost his edge in much the same way Universal once combined its fading, classic monsters into a duet with Abbot and Costello. You can tie a thread through decades of movie history down into that one movie, which, you know, fascinates the holy hell out of me. Jason X, in a way, represents why I love cinema.
Likewise, The Hughes Brothers represent why I love studying filmmakers, and for similar reasons. They’ve never made a film as shoddy as Jason X, and their links to the past are less clear (although Scorsese is a huge influence on their work, and Scorsese’s influence was everything else), but there they are, living on the margins, no longer the celebrated newcomers they once were but cresting with talent and producing deeply personal films for broad audiences. They don’t make masterpieces, but every one of their movies is worthy of discussion and analysis, and with every film, they contribute to the present culture and lay a little pavestone pointing the way to the future. There are only a handful of accomplished film masters in the world, and every one of them is standing on the backs of a dozen gifted, anonymous artists producing the bulk of the medium’s best work, the films that keep tickets ripping while the pantheon wander into the wilderness to find inspiration.
In a time where genre film has been consumed by the marketers and all goods are pre-packaged and cross-promoted, The Hughes Brothers (at least for now) resist. They deliver original material that has something new to say, and there’s just not enough of that going around these days. As I’ve said, I don’t really love any of their films, but I’m definitely excited to see what both Albert and Allen come up with next.
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)
The Hughes Brothers pull the gaudy, golden curtain back on the culture of big city pimps in a documentary that gives the pimps themselves a forum from which to preach and proselytize their ways. Revolving around a motley and colorful assortment of mostly-West Coast pimps with names like Rosebudd, Payroll, Gorgeous Dre, and Ken Red, American Pimp dispels (and occasionally confirms) popular stereotypes to get at the often-mundane truth behind the flamboyance and the day-to-day life of “the game.” The film pays special attention to pimps in pop culture, well-known celebrity pimps like Fillmore Slim and Bishop Don “Magic” Juan, and the economic and racial factors that lurk in the shadows of an already shadowy job.
The failure of Dead Presidents in 1995 didn’t exactly end the moment of the Hughes Brothers as Hollywood “it” directors, but the Brothers’ once-shining star was running low on fuel. One can track the seismic change in the Brothers’ fortunes between Presidents and American Pimp by noting the difference between how the movies were made. Dead Presidents was a hand-picked project, anointed by some as the next great African-American crime drama before a frame of footage had been shot. Just two years later, American Pimp started in trouble and then steadily fell apart from there.
“I can fix that for you. Just tell me what you need.”
The documentary began life as an adaptation of the 1969 memoir Pimp: The Story of my Life, by Iceberg Slim. A shady producer cost the Brothers the rights to the book, but rather than abandon the project entirely, they decided to lean on their West Coast contacts and transform the film into a documentary on the art and craft of pimping. The Brothers’ big idea was to allow the pimps to tell their own stories through the lens of the American ideal—young dreamers and schemers who rise from poverty to become wealthy beyond all measure. For their outsized version of the American Dream, the Hughes Brothers planned to use a hyper-visual style, but ran into problems:
“We were in it for totally exploring this lifestyle and – this was our mistake at first – making the filmmaking parallel the flamboyance of the pimp lifestyle, even overshadow it. It didn’t work at first. The pimps were too flamboyant.” – Albert Hughes”
Filming was meant to last for a year, but frequent changes in style and approach kept the Brothers from really cracking the film and the struggling production dragged on for two-and-a-half years before ultimately losing its funding. By the time the film was complete, the Brothers had spent their own money to bring it to Sundance in 1999, where the film played to a packed theatre of interested buyers. Unfortunately, the movie was poorly received and the advance buzz fizzled as the film went unsold. What had been expected to be a Hughes Brothers POW BAM WOW spectacle had instead turned out to be an understated, thoughtful, even sly exploration of pimping and capitalism, and the Brothers had to settle for limited distribution. Despite their efforts, the film lapsed into obscurity.
Which took some fucking doing, let me tell you.
What Works Like Crazy
To appreciate American Pimp, it’s best to look at the film from a slant. Taking the film at face value gives a viewer the false sense that they’re watching a straight celebration of a fairly repugnant profession. Even the pimps themselves seem to believe they’re set up as the heroes, and grant the filmmakers stunning access in a happy effort to explain how they came to be so awesome. One pimp walks the audience to the steps of the Capitol Building and the White House (“everything is white here. I need to get in there.”) Another pimp does something even bolder—he takes the audience to meet his sweetheart mother.
It’s no surprise that a room full of studio wallets clenched while viewing the film. Pimp is built almost entirely from footage of pimps talking, and these pimps talk on and on about some insanely offensive shit. The pimps justify their practice of keeping 100% of the money earned by their girls. The pimps explain that women need to be called bitches so that they know they’re loved. They downplay the violence inherent in the job, except for one pimp who describes in ugly detail how he would never kill a woman, but he might beat her until she thinks she’s about to die, so that she’ll stick tighter to him because of his mercy. A girl nods and smiles at his side.
But the film has an agenda, and eventually feeds the pimps enough velvet rope to strangle their own case. When a pimp named Charm, in prison for pushing a 16-year old girl, declares that there’s nothing wrong with pimping except that it is immoral in the eyes of God, it’s clear that the Hughes Brothers do not have stars in their eyes. They sympathize, however, with the kids who do. The Brothers understand how a poor black boy living in poverty might see the local pimp with his flashy outfits, stacks of cash, and a stable of girls as an ultimate symbol of empowerment. They understand the allure of the pimp in poor black culture.
The Brothers draw a line through media depictions of pimps—the film leans hard on clips from The Mack and Superfly— through the inner-city and blaxploitation movements of the 1970 and into the modern day, all the time hinting at the role America’s (and humanity at large’s) complicated relationship with sex and race resulted in a system that allows some people to sell sex legally and leaves others stuck with the stigma of being no-good pimps. A memorable scene takes place at the Bunny Ranch in Nevada run by sex kingpin Dennis Hof who gropes his female employees on camera and speaks of sexual equality with a voice that sounds like he’d rather be counting money. He’s not the most grotesque character in the film, but he’s close. It’s no accident that he’s white and the illegal pimps on the West Coast are not. American Pimp is never shy about landing a bit of poetic, damning irony.
And the occasional Sledgehammer of Irony
I should note that the title of the movie is American Pimp and not American Prostitute, and so it should not surprise anyone that the film lacks in female perspective. Having said that, where the hell is the female perspective?
American Pimp works hard to make the case for pimping before turning that case against pimps, but the people most affected by pimps and who might have the most to say about life in the pimp system—i.e., the women—are left almost entirely out of the film. An occasional prostitute appears for a soundbite, but American Pimp is almost exclusively about pimps, from pimps, all the way down the line.
I’m convinced that American Pimp is working against the Rosebudds of the world. At the very least, the film seeks to complicate a very morally clear issue. But by dodging major issues—the women, yes, but more attention could have paid to race politics, and the Hughes Brothers have admitted to cutting the lowest rung of pimps out of the project completely, those that use drugs to keep their women in check—the film pays a favor for those who seek to poke holes in the its motives. Here’s a movie that’s under fire and passes out its own ammunition.
The Hughes Brothers make films that ignore realism in favor of heightened dream states and exaggerated emotions, so it’s ironic that their most accomplished film is the one that dials back the style and depicts real life, if admittedly one of life’s showier corners. Menace II Society remains their most engaging and impactful film, but American Pimp reveals the filmmakers that sometimes get lost behind the “Hughes Brothers” brand. The Brothers recorded hundreds of hours of self-congratulating monologues and somehow found a way to turn the footage back around on its subjects. That’s a filmmaking magic trick that deserves more praise than the Brothers received.
From where I sit, American Pimp is a summary of the Hughes Brothers as filmmakers. The movie has style and hidden depths, and it revolves around the central theme of the Hughes Brothers’ career—the compelling nature of urban violence and crime. However, the movie feels distractingly incomplete and compromised, coming so close to greatness without ever quite paying off on its obvious potential. Still, to my eyes, it’s still the smartest and most accomplished film the Brothers have made so far.
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)
A choice is coming for Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school graduate living in the impoverished Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Caine’s girlfriend proposes he move to Atlanta to help raise her baby boy, while his friend Sharif offers a chance at college life in Kansas. Caine’s violent best friend, O-Dog (Larenz Tate), appeals to Caine to stick with his roots. After all, as Caine says, he’ll still be black wherever he goes, so what’s the difference? As Caine drags his feet, life in Watts complicates with sex, murder, and bloody retaliation, and Caine’s chances start running out.
The origin of Menace II Society ties closely to the origin of Albert and Allen Hughes as filmmakers. The film was influenced, at least in part, by the hip hop culture the brothers joined while shooting music videos for a stable of West Coast rappers, including mega-star Tupac Shakur. The brothers wanted to move into feature films in a way that would exploit their music connections while breaking new ground. Spike Lee’s 1989 provocation Do the Right Thing opened the door ever-so-slightly for black filmmakers telling stories about the realities of poor, black, urban life, but the resulting films had typically cut dark themes with uplifting messages to appeal to broader (i.e., white) audiences, such as in John Singleton’s 1991 debut, Boyz in the Hood, which uses an uplifting family story to make the surrounding tragedy palatable. The Hughes Brothers rejected this. As they saw it, most kids don’t make it out of the hood, and suggesting otherwise is a cop out. They wanted their story to be more real.
Allen Hughes: We made the film to inform them [white audiences] of something they didn’t know. That black kids don’t just pop out the womb shooting guns for no reason. I remember when pitching the movie to New Line they go, “Well what is different between this and when we see the black guy on the news every night running from the helicopter? I go, “Well you’re in the motherfuckin’ helicopter and you don’t know why that kid is running.” (source)
The brothers, then only 20 years old, hired screenwriter Tyger Williams to transform their idea into a workable script, which they used to lure Shakur to star in the project. The package of talent and the brothers’ inherent marketability convinced New Line Cinema to finance the project for a mere $1.5m.
A serious issue developed on the set. Shakur, initially hired to play Caine’s Muslim friend Sharif, left the project for unclear reasons, although several accounts claimed he preferred the role of O-Dog to his own. Shakur felt disrespected by the brothers, leading to a physical altercation on the set of a music video for which Shakur eventually served 15 days in jail. Bad blood lingered between Shakur and the Brothers all the way up to Shakur’s death in 1996.
Menace II Society premiered in May of 1993 and became an overnight hit with critics. The New York Times, in particular, printed three reviews of the film and set the early tone for the discussion. The film rode those strong reviews to a $21m domestic take and, more importantly, worked its way into popular culture. The issues and images presented in Menace contributed to the identity of the “street” genre that bubbled in the early 1990s, and the film was a prominent target of the eventual Wayans Brothers spoof Don’t be a Menace to South Central while Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. In fact, the iconic opening sequence to Menace II Society became one of the central gags in the spoof.
What Works Like Crazy
Menace II Society hasn’t aged well, but that’s not a knock on its character or quality, but rather a testament to the film’s claim on a specific time and place in American culture. Picking it up fresh today, the film is too easy to dismiss as a junkbox of clichés and urban crime-drama tropes. We’ve all seen these images before: the black teenager brandishing his gun and talking shit; the momma sobbing in the streets while she cradles her gunned-down baby; the clean-cut kid trying to get out. The Wayans’s Don’t be a Menace came out in 1996, which shows just how quickly the genre was identified, autopsied, and reanimated for audiences as a source of laughs. But that’s not the fault of Menace II Society, which stands as one of a handful of fresh, raw films from the early 90s that spoke up for a grossly underrepresented point of view.
Some people think back to the 90s indie film scene and remember only rebel cowboy filmmakers rattling Hollywood cages with provocative, ultra-violent art, or the Miramax brand of awards-winning weirdness, but part of the excitement of that time came from the idea that new filmmakers could come from anywhere, and in fact were appearing all over, in the most unexpected places. A developing film community in black Los Angeles producing mainstream work was an intoxicating notion precisely because nothing like that had ever happened before, or even really been possible. When the LA Riots erupted in 1992, it provided bloody context for a wave of explosive films that seemed to put another Menace II Society, Boyz in the Hood, or New Jack City into theaters every couple of months. Black voices were speaking up in American film and, for once, a wider audience was listening, as crowds of every color wandered into theaters looking for answers behind the unrest they watched daily on the news.
What the Hughes Brothers delivered wasn’t comforting. Menace II Society proposes a world in which the hood is a prison, and the notion of escape to white, suburban America is a naïve illusion. It’s a fatalistic film that suggests apathy follows poverty, and its most alluring figure is a raging psychopath.
O-Dog is a ready-made cult figure, a character who embodies directionless rage, because he has no direction to go anyway. He doesn’t care about killing, about drugs, or about anything beyond getting ahead and proving his masculinity. His win-at-all-costs attitude comes from the same cultural wheelhouse that made Tony Montana an icon of the rap world, and one can easily imagine an alternate reality in which Tupac played the role and added the film to his already loaded canon of bad-ass imagery.
The film’s structure invites comparisons to 1990’s Goodfellas, and while it’s clear that Martin Scorsese’s movie was a major influence, I think Mean Streets is the more direct comparison. Like Menace, Mean Streets was heavily stylized, and yet real enough to feel as if it had organically sprung up in front of the cameras. Like both films, Menace leans heavily on voiceovers and mixes humor and violence to establish the ensemble of characters as a family with histories and lives beyond the all the murder and crime. Because of this, the Watts of Menace II Society feels as real as Scorsese’s New York. It has a tangible sense of place.
The film’s look is heightened and intense. The Hughes Brothers drench the film in vibrant colors—especially blood reds–and never hesitate to throw in a dutch angle or a showy camera move to twist the action to fit their purposes. The technique is sometimes distracting, but it works way more often than it doesn’t and gives the film a strong, unique voice.
If there is actually an alternate reality where Tupac Shakur is in the film, audiences of that universe have probably seen the better movie. Menace II Society succeeds when it feels dangerous, like a fresh scab pulled from the wounds of South Central LA, but the movie flounders when it gets tangled up in artificial plot points and, especially, when asking too much from its actors.
Larenz Tate (O-Dog) and Tyrin Turner (Caine) are the heart of the picture, but neither has the chops required to make the relationship believable. They’re acting and you can tell they’re acting. Tate, especially, seems like a really nice kid playing dress-up as a thug. Tate’s performance occasionally works for the film—it’s not unwelcome to see the little boy behind O-Dog’s bravado—but the film deflates whenever O-Dog has to be tough, which is all the damn time. Joe Pesci was so effective in Goodfellas because of how convincingly his character transitioned between being the clown and the psycho, but Tate wrestles with credibility.
The movie does boast a few strong performances, but mostly by actors who are sadly miscast. Samuel L. Jackson cameos as Caine’s father, but as the film was shot before Jackson’s breakout role in Pulp Fiction, he’s disappointingly quiet. Charles S. Dutton excels in his brief role as a teacher, but authority figures have no place in the film’s world, and his character feels jammed in. (Try imagining a well-meaning parole officer in Mean Streets.) The same goes for Jada Pinkett, whose character is the moral center for a movie portraying a world without morals.
That’s ultimately the problem with Menace II Society. The film that Albert Hughes describes in the quote above is a nihilistic, angry movie, but the film stumbles whenever rays of light try to peek through the clouds. Caine’s story is about a kid who had no chance, but Caine has PLENTY of chances. He’s practically swimming in opportunities to get out of the hood, but he rejects them all. It’s like the old joke about the man who refuses three different boats in a flood because he’s waiting for God to save him, and when he gets to heaven, God says “I sent three boats.” Caine’s problem is the hood, yes, but Caine’s other problem is Caine. Audiences who approach the film with the belief that a little bootstrap-pulling and upward mobility is all that’s needed to change the hood are likely to walk away unmoved.
The Hughes Brothers earned the attention they received for their debut feature. It’s stark and raw and honest in the way that good, debut films from young directors tend to be. Unfortunately, the brothers’ inexperience working with narrative results in stilted, awkward performances, and the script contains miscalculated plot points that undercut the movie’s theme. Still, Menace II Society deserves its reputation as a compelling work from compelling filmmakers, and contains images so iconic and fresh that it helped to launch an entire genre of successors who steadily stole from and chipped away at the film until its new ideas became somebody else’s clichés. Even as The Hughes Brothers have upped their filmmaking craft, they’ve rarely had as many interesting things to say.
The Hughes Brothers Project
2. Menace II Society
4. From Hell
Today, we’re finally entering the home stretch with a look at the Hughes’ deeply flawed, intriguing post-apoc epic…
The Earth lies charred from some kind of war-related disaster, and what’s left of humanity clumps together in shanty towns held together by barter and violence. Walking west across this wasteland is Eli (Denzel Washington), with a mission to do two things: kick ass and carry mysterious books, and he’s all out of mysterious boo—oh, wait. Eli happens to own the exact book that the warlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants, and so a classic “town of evil vs. wandering battle-monk” scenario kicks into gear.
Spoiler alert, the book is the Bible.
“Thou shalt not get the fuck back up.”
Eli and his biblical quest began as a gutsy spec script from talented video game writer Gary Whitta (Prey). The boldness of the script helped it gain attention, and it soon fell into the hands of producer Joel Silver, who brought it to the attention of the Hughes Brothers, fresh off an 8-year sabbatical of solo work meant to distinguish their different creative voices. “I didn’t get it right away, my brother did,” says Albert Hughes. “And I said, ‘I don’t know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff.’ And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”
The Book of Eli premiered on January 15, 2010, and immediately tasted blue, furry death at the hands of James Cameron’s Avatar monster. Getting noticed at all around all that background noise was tough enough, but Eli still managed to turn a small profit, picking up a reported $160m worldwide on an $80m budget, which made it a very sturdy, if not quite mind-blowing, success.
There has rarely been anything cooler in the world than watching Eli hunt for cat meat.
What Works Like Crazy
We’re all agreed that the apocalypse is not going to be cool, right? I mean, when the shit hits, it’s going to be all mushroom clouds and goat-babies and flies pouring out of people’s elbows. But the Hughes Brothers make the apocalypse look cool. It’s not a happening place to be, exactly, but the Hughes’s exaggerated sets and computer-enhanced skylines lend the proceedings an air of epic awesomeness that works for a film carrying such biblical ambitions. The Book of Eli is like the post-apoc movie the Shaw Brothers Studio never had a chance to make, and Denzel Washington is their Jimmy Wang.
Washington kicks the apocalypse’s ass in Eli and manages to totally sell the near-unsellable: an incorruptible man in a world without laws. So many apocalypse heroes are pragmatists who make choices based on need without much thought for scruples, but Eli is a man of morals who answers to a higher power. In any other hands, that character is a doofus, but Washington ditches that and goes for world-weary and kind. He’s a warrior monk who wants nothing and needs nothing except the direction West. It’s a performance that grounds the film and plays well against Oldman’s big bad.
Looking like Bricktop, after the bomb.
Speaking of Gary Oldman—which we should all be doing, all the time—he does solid work in his role, presenting Carnegie in a way that make him believably frightening, and just a little scary without crossing into a Romeo is Bleeding/The Professional cartoon. Carnegie is a believer in his own way. He could care less about the specifics of what the book has to say, but he respects the power in it, and it’s that tension between belief and practicality that drives the film. Eli and Carnegie are waging a private little war, and it’s not really about the book as much as it’s about the way the world is going to be built. Ironically, it’s Carnegie who wants to build civilizations and Eli who wants to empower the individual, despite the Bible’s insistence and building a church between believers. Unfortunately, that’s only the first of many confusion points in the film’s message.
Or, to put it more bluntly, what the hell is The Book of Eli getting at? Let’s assume that somebody, at some point, had more in mind than just a boot-tapping action movie and actually wanted the movie to say something. Call me crazy, but that’s what I’m going to assume. I mean, that’s why it’s the Bible and not the goddamned Webster’s Dictionary, right?
Yup. Another apocalypse.
Carnegie describes a mass purging of Bibles after the apocalypse, because people believed that belief in the Bible had resulted in the destruction of the Earth. OK, sounds like a religious war to me, which probably means all the other books are—OH WAIT. When Eli arrives at his destination, all other major religious texts are found and accounted for. Since it’s not likely that a couple of dozen blind warrior-wanderers found their way across the wasteland, I’m going to assume that the Bible was the biggest get, the hardest find. It stands to reason that the Bible took the brunt of the blame and the damage while the other texts skated by, so why exactly are we thrilled that the book survives? The movie never makes a truly convincing argument for why the Bible should be passed on. Fair, there’s the whole “it’s not the book, but it’s what the people do with the book” thing that Carnegie represents, but then again we don’t exactly know enough about the people on Alcatraz to know their intentions. And what happens when someone with bigger guns shows up and takes the book? Retaining the Bible and all the competing texts feels an awful lot like hanging on to the past and failing to move forward, which is a philosophy that pretty much everyone embraces at the end of the film, while poor progressive Carnegie is left to be eaten alive. It sounds to me that, like the stragglers in The Stand, these survivors are doomed to make the same damn mistakes as the people before them.
The whole plot boils down to faith, I guess? Except, if I’m allowed to steal and butcher Monty Python, faith is no way to form a system of government, and that appears to be exactly the plan at the end of the film. Eli’s quest seems to be for nothing, and Mila Kunis (as poor pawn-turned-padawan Solara) ends the movie as the new Eli, literally wandering back the way she came and carrying on a mission that seems questionable at best and outright irresponsible at worst.
To be clear, I’m not advocating censorship or rooting for the destruction of the Bible. I’m only saying that the way the story goes about its business leaves a lot of intriguing and disturbing questions that the movie can’t be bothered to explain or clear up. The Hughes Brothers’ themselves kind of waffled around the issues of their film’s message when asked point blank.
In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the “last great war,” because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?
Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience. But you’re like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can’t even answer that. I can’t answer some things in all of the movies that we’ve made.
Some questions are tough. Ford tough.
Beyond troubling spiritual questions that even the director can’t answer, The Book of Eli wastes a pretty amazing supporting cast in thankless roles. Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and Malcom McDowell show up to the party with almost nothing to do, and so help me, I forgot Ray Stevenson was even in the film until looking back over the cast list.
Perhaps that’s because the world around the actors is so damn lousy with product placement that there’s hardly room for much else. Even in the apocalypse, at least I know my NAME BRAND truck and my NAME BRAND food will survive! The product placement is so consistent and brazenly fronted through the film—not to mention wildly out of place, considering the premise–that I was constantly reminded of the secretly awesome film Josie and the Pussycats, and when your bad-ass, bleached-out, warworld reminds me of a Tara Reid film, the apocalypse is truly fucking here.
Tara Reid’s Mind Palace
The Book of Eli is one of the most visually accomplished movies in the Hughes Brothers canon, but it leans too heavily on some shaky spiritual questions and a few outright baffling choices. Crippling product placement distracts from one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, but there’s just enough blood, brawn, and showy violence to keep the viewer from checking out. There’s plenty to like about Washington’s character—although the third act “twist” stretches a little thin to my eyes—but he’s stuck in a story that feels a little too heavy on faith, not of the Biblical kind, but of the kind that says “as long as it’s really, really cool, the audience will forgive us for pretty much anything.”
The Hughes Brothers Project
3. The Book of Eli
4. From Hell
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)