The question that Caine struggles with is whether life has any real meaning, taking into account the ugly, cruel, but still unimaginably changeable circumstances under which many people are able to live -- "in particular, young black men caught in a web of presumption and prejudice about their alleged natures and what they might be capable of -- becomes the fundamental question" (Flory 2008) for Caine and for the entire film.
environmental perspective. Less than thirty minutes into the Menace II Society, Caine's grandfather asks him if he even cares if he lives or dies. This question is a philosophical topic, as suggested by Camus, but it is also a psychological question because what happens when a person becomes ambivalent about their life? And what drives them to become so? There is some suggestion that focusing on race by delineating how a presumed guilt of African-Americans and other related conditions (e.g. family, drugs, street life, etc.) may force them to think a certain way as well as force them into making certain choices that may not only degrade them but that they find difficult to avoid (Flory 2008). It is important when analyzing Caine's character that there are many extraneous factors in his case other than typical psychosocial stage elements to consider. Because Caine is growing up in a tough part of Los Angeles that is more or less confined to itself, he is stuck in an area where black men make bad choices because his consciousness of opportunities is limited (2008). There is a sort of resistance to escape where he is from is we are to believe Moody-Adams's theories about the effects of such beliefs on the psyches of young black Americans (2008).
"Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice. We have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in" (Montaigne 1958; Moody-Adams 2002). This quote of Montaigne's, written in the sixteenth century, is an astute observation that reminds that relativism about differing practices is not an entirely new development. Anti-relativists wrongly try to put morality beyond culture, instead, relativism makes sense of our intuitions about the limited motivational reach of our moral practices (Harman 1975; Moody-Adams 2002). What's more is that it "makes no sense to ask whether an action is wrong, apart from its relation to a group's implicit agreement to accept certain moral rules (1975; 2002).
Applying the tenets of environmental psychology to understand Caine's character is the most natural way to make sense of the story of his life. While living at home with his grandparents and attending school full-time, Caine was able to focus on his studies and other aspects of life without feeling lured by or sucked into the violence of south L.A. street life. However, once out of school, the street sucked him in -- not because he was so tempted but because of the environmental stress that was put on him by his peers and his surroundings. His grandparents were not able to stop the influence once it had gotten to him. Young, black males in American "negotiate their day-to-day lives under the 'shadow of whiteness'" (Carroll 1998).
When Caine watched the film it's a Wonderful Life with his grandparents, he looked at the screen and saw nothing at all that related to his experience in life -- even though at the time he was living with a loving couple of grandparents who were religious and stable in their love for him. Caine felt the color line in America and he probably thought that his grandparents were ignoring it. How else could they blissfully watch a white family rejoice as an angel restored their happiness? Could it be that Caine, even after a century of slavery being abolished, still feels unwanted and neglected in society? Could it be that most of the males roaming the streets with him feel the same?
Looking at Caine from an environmental psychology standpoint allows us to see that Caine is a product of his environment. He was not the first (his legacy was that) and he will not be the last. While there's a chance that Caine could have overcome his fate, there's the greater chance that he wouldn't -- and he didn't.
We are all products of our environments. There's a reason that people who are abused as children have a greater likelihood of becoming abusers themselves. it's the question between nature vs. nurture, but when we're being nurtured in all the wrong ways, it'll always win. We are a result of our experiences. it's very human to oversimplify the problem, wanting to put all of our efforts into the solution. While nature could never be discounted, traits are the direct cause of the interaction of a lot of genes that are influenced by our environment. Without getting too much into nature vs. nurture, the point is that all of the boys in Menace II Society are products of their environment. Their motives seem arbitrary, vicious and almost always dominant, but it is this dominance, this arbitrariness that is intricately associated with their oppression to the more dominant world -- that which is rich, that which is white. These men don't put value on a human life, not even their own.
Menace II Society seems to want the viewer to believe that Caine is not a murderer -- even though he murders, but rather, the film wants us to believe that Caine is a victim of his society and his environment. Caine can be understood in no other way, which is why the movie is so resoundingly interesting, especially when it comes to Caine's character (although all the characters have interesting aspects that could do with some psychological prodding).
cognitive perspective. From a cognitive psychological standpoint, we can look at Caine and try to understand his mental processes -- how he thinks, how he perceives. it'd be interesting to know exactly what Caine remembers about his life before he went to live with his grandparents. To learn more about the effects of his life with his parents would be very helpful in a better understanding of Caine as an entire person. it's not sufficient to simply say that Caine is just a product of his environment. While the environment is certainly important when it comes to looking at a person's psychological state, it is also important to understand how they cope in that environment. What leads them to certain decisions and not others? For Caine, he had the worst of one world and the best of another, for what reason was he compelled by the other? The one that would mean his life would end much too early?
Caine's inner life is more important than what his behaviors are because what he does comes out of what he thinks -- of his life, of himself, of his world. From what we see in the film, Caine appears to be a moral and overall good person who appears to be a victim of his environment; but, merely saying that he is a victim is too easy. The viewers see that he is not a victim completely, but even though he is doing horrible things, we feel sad for him because we think that if he weren't in that situation, he would be all right. This is what is so brilliant about Caine as a character in the film. People are not black or white in the way the act and react. What compels to lure Caine to do what he does is a combination of what he has seen, what he knows, where he feels his most comfortable and, ultimately, how he sees his life in the bigger picture of the world. This has more to do with how he sees his race and how he sees his prospects.
Going back to the film it's a Wonderful Life, the Hughes brothers probably couldn't have picked a more ironic film to put inside of their own film. The very presence of Jimmy Stewart in that environment -- a small town where everyone knows everyone, cares about everyone, seems like a different world that was undeniably the whole point of its cameo. It is important that we, as students of psychology, look at people not just as a part of the world they are in, but we should look at the part of the world that they are not in; only then can we understand their true plight in life. The character of Caine in Menace II Society, had he lived, could have taught us a lot about the workings of circumstances on the mind.
Banks Gregerson, Mary. (2009) the cinematic mirror for psychology and life coaching.
Springer; 1st edition.
Carroll, Grace. (1998) Environmental stress and African-Americans. Praeger.
Erikson, Erik H. (1994) Identity and the life cycle.