The Review/Feature/

How Set It Off raked it up

The heist-movie hit brought Black (and Black queer) women into the liberating space of action cinema

by Sarah-Tai Black
Dec 16, 2017

Sarah-Tai Black introduces Set It Off on Sunday, December 17 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Black Star.

I know it has to be about Black women, because our stories have never been told.” — Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman

Look, we just taking away from a system that’s fucking us all anyway.” — Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), Set It Off

As we seek to both acknowledge and amend the erasure of Black bodies and Black experience from the history of cinema, it is vitally important to bring to the forefront those bodies and experiences that have customarily been least visible within this already marginalized demographic. While Black stars have been essential in the formation of Black cultural histories and reflective of Black identities both on- and offscreen, it is no surprise — given the structural effects of racism and its insidious synthesis with the workings of cisheterosexism within dominant film production and culture — that there is a dearth of mainstream Hollywood films that reflect the experiences of Black women, femmes, and the various intersecting communities which hold space for them.

This is not to overlook a powerful tradition of radical and formally innovative filmmaking that has indeed addressed our communities, from Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman to the work of Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and the numerous other pioneering filmmakers whose work sprung out of the revolutionary L.A. Rebellion movement, as well as the queen of contemporary Black filmmaking herself, Ava DuVernay. But it’s also fair to say that many of these films are not those that the majority of us have historically been able to grow up watching in our homes alongside our families — those that, aided by the heavy hand of resource and capital, have been afforded the privilege of accessibility and critical attention, and which have inevitably played a greater role in shaping the dominant narratives of Black cultural histories onscreen.

It’s thus of no small importance that Set It Off — an action film about four Black women who strike back against “a system that’s fucking us all anyway” by carrying out a string of bank robberies — could gross $41 million at the box office in 1996, just four years after the Los Angeles Riots and two after the passing into law of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a congressional bill that is widely considered to have increased the state’s already zealous criminalization and incarceration of Black populations. The financial success of F. Gary Gray’s second film speaks not only to a powerful desire on the part of Black audiences (and especially Black women) to see themselves reflected on the big screen — including the all-too-familiar struggles with the nexus of racism, sexism, and class-based prejudice that informs their everyday lives — but a desire to partake in the same kind of grand-scale heroics that mainstream entertainment has so often provided for white audiences. To watch a film that not only acknowledges one’s marginalization but also depicts a potential liberation from that real-world oppression — however fantastical in nature — is both a powerful and an empowering experience, particularly when it is articulated through the narratives and conventions of the Hollywood filmmaking that so many of us grew up on.

Written by Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford, Set It Off stands in stark contrast to the typically all-male heist movie through its focus on the personal narratives and subjective experiences of its four main characters — best friends Stoney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), Cleo (Queen Latifah), and Tisean (Kimberly Elise) — compassionately showing the way their lived realities have limited their opportunities, and consequently how the rather fantastical option of high-stakes armed robbery becomes a viable solution to their social precariousness. These women are not only motivated by money, but by a desire to live outside of the structural effects of racism, sexism, and classism which have effectively blocked any movement toward economic stability.

Where the back stories of characters in the typical heist film are usually little more than generic conventions, an excuse to hurry them towards the narrative goal of the “big score,” those of the characters in Set It Off are grounded in the real-world struggles of Black women and their communities, which exist in a culture that systematically denies them the opportunities to simply survive with dignity. Frankie, a hard-working teller at a city bank, is unfairly fired from her job after men who live in her housing project rob her branch. Judged guilty by association, Frankie is terminated without notice or references, and — with bills to pay and no prospect of comparable employment to be found — she takes a job doing janitorial work alongside Tisean, Cleo, Frankie, and Stony. Tisean, a single mother unable to afford child care on the wage she makes, has no choice but to bring her son to work with her, where he one day ingests toxic cleaning products and is taken into custody by child protective services. Stoney, the sole provider for her younger brother after the deaths of their parents, works tirelessly to save enough money to send him to university, an opportunity she sees as crucial to his survival as a young Black man living in the projects. While celebrating his high school graduation with friends, the unarmed young man is shot and killed by police.

In her classic volume Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, the inimitable Audre Lorde writes: “When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining — I'm broadening the joining.” In its depiction of its four main characters, Set It Off effectively broadens this “joining,” making use of the narrative and characterological conventions of Hollywood cinema while introducing a wider spectrum of subjectivities that undermine or shift the heteronormative and male-centric assumptions that underlie those conventions. Moreover, the film not only acknowledges the truth of state violence against the Black body politic, but rebelliously reorients that narrative of Black oppression to include the voices and experiences of those who have been long unheard and unacknowledged.

While Frankie and Cleo are initially the prime movers behind the bank-robbery scheme, it is Pinkett Smith’s Stoney who ultimately serves as the film’s narrative anchor, and her evolution over the course of the narrative is a vivid illustration of how Set It Off brings a dynamic and multifaceted approach to what could otherwise be stock characterizations. Stoney begins the film in the kind of staid role that Black women have been boxed into since the beginning of film history: a provider, a caregiver, a self-sacrificing figure who is entirely focused on helping to realize the potential of another (male) character. This trope has been a constant in cinematic portrayals of Black life, even the most well-meaning: films like A Raisin in the Sun or Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, while incredibly important for their sensitive and realistic depictions of Black American experience, nevertheless frequently consign Black women to essentially subservient supporting roles rather than autonomous characters in their own right.

Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

While there is certainly a degree of truth to these portrayals inasmuch as Black women have been, and continue to be, significant sources of support and care for their communities, we are comparatively starved for stories that explore our identities beyond this sphere. What do Black women desire? How do we navigate intersectional violence and trauma? How do our relationships with our communities, including other Black women, inform our own identities and experiences?

Set It Off wields its generic principles and Hollywood budget in the pursuit of answers to such questions. Where women-centred mainstream features so often emphasize women’s romantic (and almost always heterosexual) attachments over any others, the bonds that Set It Off emphasizes are those between its four women, the ways in which they support each other and the internal struggles within their friendships placing the complex solidarity of these connections into high relief. Here, men, both Black and white, are relegated to spectators of women’s pursuits, pleasures, and dreams. While the white detective (John C. McGinley) who is continually one step behind the quartet somewhat evokes the one-dimensionally clueless and/or demonic white villains of ’70s Blaxploitation films, Set It Off’s portrayal of Black men as both adversaries and allies to the women is a rarely seen trope, and one which renders visible a key experience of Black womanhood.

On the adversarial side of things, one of the film’s chief villains is Luther (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), the women’s employer at the janitorial service, who continually degrades the women with sexist and (in the case of Cleo) homophobic comments, devalues them as employees, and, later, steals the profits from one of their robberies. Contrasted to Luther are Black Sam, a local arms dealer (played by a wonderfully low-key Dr. Dre) who provides the women with training, weapons, and ammunition and finally cheers them on from home as the local news televises their climactic pursuit by police; and Stoney’s love interest Keith (Blair Underwood), an employee at a bank the women go on to rob, who like Black Sam is ultimately consigned to watching the action the women have created rather than taking part himself.

While the film’s relegation of male characters to definitively secondary roles is impressive in itself, even more so is the nuance and sensitivity with which it treats Queen Latifah’s Cleo, the one queer member of the quartet. On paper, Set It Off appears to adhere to the narrative “punishment” so often meted out to such characters: Cleo’s outspokenness, assertiveness, and open indulgence of her “transgressive” desires leads the viewer to (rightly) suspect that she will be made a martyr by the film’s conclusion. But as with the spate of Hollywood “female empowerment” films of the early 1930s — e.g., Christopher Strong (with Katharine Hepburn as an adventurous aviator), Female (with Ruth Chatterton as an auto tycoon), or Baby Face (with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who unapologetically — and literally — sleeps her way to the top of a major financial firm) — it is the spectacle of this empowerment that sticks, rather than the character’s ideologically dictated end. Moonlight it isn’t, but Set It Off gives space to a performance of Black queerness that pushes against the limits of mainstream cinematic codes of the time. Latifah’s vibrant performance and commanding presence, embodying both butch strength and vulnerability, defies the conventional demise of her character, and, for many, allows Cleo to emerge as the true hero of the film.

Significantly, Cleo’s sexuality and gender expression are never mocked by the film itself: the sexist, homophobic, and transphobic comments from Luther reflect on the moral lack of his own character rather than as a judgment on Cleo’s identity, while the other women’s jokes about Cleo are delivered tongue-in-cheek and in a spirit of camaraderie. As with the other three women, the film treats Cleo with empathy, respect, and reverence. And even though her relationship with her partner Ursula (Samantha MacLachlan) becomes a site of conflict between her and her comrades, this is not due to her sexual orientation or choice of partner, but because the other women object to Cleo prioritizing her romantic relationship over her platonic ones.

Similarly, even though the depiction of Ursula as the “silent femme” is more than a little problematic, the interactions between her and Cleo offer an all-too-rare depiction of the Black lesbian gaze on film and a depiction of sexuality and desire that defiantly engages with heteronormative codes of sexual representation. When Ursula performs a lap dance for Cleo in the clip above, we see her performance not through the prurient gaze of the (implied) male spectator in the theatre, but through the eyes of the women in the film (specifically Cleo’s) — it is a relationship between characters, a queer femme expression of sexuality that attests to the relationship between these two women rather than serving as an exercise in voyeurism. This kind of Black lesbian autonomy has been a rare sight in mainstream cinema — indeed, if Black women have been erased from film’s past (and future?) histories, Black queer women, femmes, and gender non-conforming folks have been even more so. In this light, Cleo’s crashing of an SUV through the front window of a metropolitan bank is arguably one of the most important moments of Black queer self-affirmation in popular cinema.

This is a kind of power ordinarily refused to Black women and femmes on screen, a power and an imaginative freedom that, for far too long, has been the domain of predominantly white and male characters. At one point, the film even makes an explicit nod to this tradition with a perfectly charming homage to The Godfather, incorporating Black women into a cinematic canon which has customarily ignored our existence, never mind our personhood.

In centring the narratives of Stoney, Frankie, Cleo, and Tisean, Set It Off reorients the ways in which we have historically watched action cinema — which is to say, the way in which the genre, and indeed, mainstream filmmaking as a whole, has typically reinforced gendered and racialized hierarchies which have structured both the stories we have been able to hear and the type of experiences that have been deemed culturally valuable. While Gray’s film was surprisingly well-received by the largely white critical establishment (as was this year’s even more successful Girls Trip, which also features SIO stars Pinkett Smith and Latifah), much of that praise seemed couched in language that made it seem like an anomaly, and that also largely occluded acknowledgment of an audience that was (and is) hungry for such stories — indicative of how little faith cinema’s cultural gatekeepers have in the ability of Black women’s stories to both resonate with audiences and triumph at the box office.

Girls Trip key art (clockwise from top left: Tiffany Hadish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall)

Set It Off offers a vision of Black experience wherein women take the helm and possess the power to pursue not just what they need to survive, but what they need to thrive; it offers not only a realistic recognition of our struggles, but an imaginative illustration of our abilities and potential. In light of the continued devaluation of Black women, femme, and non-binary individuals’ narratives (not to mention their lives), the opportunity to see Black realities infused with the transformative power of fantasy offers a liberatory mode of viewing. This is not to say that this narrative illusion of freedom is the end goal or limit of cinema’s potential for Black audiences: rather, it is one of many modes of storytelling that form a broader base of representation within which we may see ourselves. More than just a symbol of our resiliency and vibrancy in the face of our marginalization, Black stars reflect back to us that we exist, that we are seen, that our lives matter. As Black stardom becomes more multitudinous and wide-spanning than ever, it only makes it all the more clear that each of our stories is worthy of a seat at the table. It’s just a matter of making room.


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