Black Resistance Screenings: #SetItOff

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In 1996, the LGBT community was still somewhat marginalized in popular culture. Black lesbians in particular, were barely shown. The movie Set It Off, directed by F. Gary Gray, was not a movie about Black lesbians at all; it was a heist movie. An anomaly then and now, Set It Off showed Black women planning, pulling off, and [almost] evading the consequences of criminal activity. Cleo, played by Queen Latifah, was the Black lesbian in question and the casting was certainly intriguing.

Latifah has then and since been dogged by rumors that she’s a closeted lesbian, something that most of the music community now views as an “open secret.” Latifah has herself fanned the speculation as she’s been seen publicly with her alleged girlfriend, fitness trainer Jeanette Jenkins, in addition to playing a bisexual character in a cameo appearance on the VH1 scripted series “Single Ladies,” which she produced.

Set It Off was not conceived as Latifah’s coming out party and indeed, it wasn’t. Cleo, along with friends Frankie, (Vivica A. Fox), Stoney (Jada Pinkett) and T.T. (Kimberly Elise) were led by their varying situations to become a bank robbing crew. In Frankie’s case, she had been an honest bank employee, who survived a robbery, only to be implicated by police in the aftermath.

Although Gray has never espoused any particular interest in female empowerment before or since and may have just been attracted to the novelty of a Black female heist movie, the film holds up as one of empowerment, even after so many years. The lives of poor Black women in Los Angeles are not viewed disparagingly. They are seen as poor working class women who each are dealing with the problems that come with it.

Whether’s it’s T.T.’s child being taken by social services after an accident because her low-paying job doesn’t allow her money for babysitting, or Frankie’s treatment as a suspect because she knows the bank robbers from the neighborhood, it’s a study of how Black women often face enormous challenges in navigating the world around them, particularly when they lack resources to uplift themselves.

The movie also allows a Black lesbian to have straight friends for whom her lesbianism is simply a part of her personal life. While the others have varying issues that annoy their friends, Cleo is accepted as the masculine lesbian she is, with only one of her friends expressing slight revulsion when she and her girlfriend are making out. Even then, it’s arguable that the public display of affection is what’s most annoying, not the fact that she’s with another woman. Cleo is very much a part of the crew and is allowed to inhabit the typically violent anti-hero’s role that usually goes to a male in these kinds of films.

It’s sad that there are few characters that have appeared with this kind of complex humanity, and indeed, even in Queen Latifah’s subsequent TV and film roles, she always plays a heteronormative role.

Jada’s Stoney is also complex as her goals are the ones that have the best chance of being realized. She jumps income and cultural classes to date an upscale man (who is actually a bank employee) and seems to be the most motivated and most capable of improving her own situation. She has an innate strength, despite the challenges of her life that eludes the other characters who are motivated to rob by various life experiences, but are unable, because of character defects or choices, to capitalize on their fleeting windfall.

 Set It Off remains a rare classic in the “Black” movie genre – one where although there are still nods to heteronormativity being the desired experience for Black women, there is at least a varied representation of the lives and struggles of everyday Black women. It’s not a perfect movie, but its very existence and its success (it did well in theaters and with critics) suggests that stories of Black women in all their complexities are not just worthy and necessary, but can be profitable. Particularly now, when images of Black women across TV and film have become more stereotypical and narrowed than ever before, Set it Off is a reminder of the possibilities of cinema to make a change in how we view ourselves.

By Tonya Pendleton

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