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.”
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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 GoodFellas. 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 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.
See the brothers latest interview on their new film “The Book Of Eli” starring Denzel Washington: