Why 'Set It Off' Is a Seminal Film for Black Feminism

Why 'Set It Off' Is a Seminal Film for Black Feminism

The heist classic celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Published November 7th

Written by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

“What’s the procedure when you have a gun to your head?”

I’d be hard pressed to choose the most meaningful line from the classic film Set It Off, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. But if there was, well, a gun to my head, the line above might be the one. Fans will remember the words are said twice: First, at the film’s opening, when a white male police officer scolds Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) for failing to follow protocol during a robbery at the bank where she works as a teller; second, at the end of the movie, when Frankie holds a gun to the same officer’s head after she and her homegirls have robbed several banks themselves.

As fierce as it is, this line is more than just a memorable plot frame for a movie about badass Black women bank robbers. It points to the film’s critiques of racial, gender, sexual and class politics, sexual and state violence, reproductive rights and the practice of solidarity among women — critiques that, when the film was released in 1996, were both right on time and ahead of their time. This line and so many others show why Set It Off is the Black feminist film we need to be talking about right now.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, and written by Takashi Bufford and Kate LanierSet It Off follows four girlfriends from Los Angeles who plan and execute a string of bank heists in response to various forms of intersectional violence. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 but theorized earlier by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde and others, describes how overlapping structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism shape Black women’s circumstances. Frankie, Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith), Tisean (Kimberly Elise) and ultimate woman crush Cleo (Queen Latifah) find themselves between several of these structural rocks and personal hard places: Frankie is fired from the bank because, as a Black woman from the projects, she is presumed to be in cahoots with the men who stick her up; Tisean loses custody of her toddler after bringing him to her janitorial job because she can’t afford childcare and must raise funds to get him back; Cleo needs money both to pay the bills and to buy cars and other possessions that will allow her to assert an idealized masculinity otherwise denied to her as a Black queer woman.

Of all the women’s stories, it is Stony’s that speaks most directly to the issues shaping Black feminist conversations today. As her name suggests, Stony is the rock of her family and the anchor of her crew, as well as of the film’s narrative. We first meet her group of friends at a party she throws to celebrate her younger brother Stevie’s admission to college. The plot takes off a few scenes later, when an unarmed Stevie is killed by police, who mistake a celebratory champagne bottle for a gun. This narrative of state violence and police murder is right on time for 1996, two years following the notorious 1994 Violent Crime Control Act that led to a dramatic increase in incarceration of Black people and drew widespread attention to what has often been called the “criminalization of young Black men.”

But what about Black women?

Set It Off upends this familiar gendering of Black pain. The movie refuses to erase Black women from narratives of criminalization, police murder and state violence. Instead of showing Black women gathering to fight only for young Black men, it gives us a story about Black women navigating power on their own terms. Yes, they are mothers, sisters, partners and employees, but their first and most important fight is for themselves. Although for much of the film they dodge white police pursuit and outsmart Black male adversaries, by the end of the movie, all the women but Stony are killed by police or other armed authorities.

Their story speaks to the work Black feminists face in 2016: our determination to center the incarceration and police murders of Black women like Sandra Bland, CeCe McDonald and Corryn Gaines in any serious discussion of justice reform; our insistence on supporting the Black Lives Matter movement without ignoring that its founders are three Black queer women. Our commitment to recognizing sexual violence against Black women, queer people and trans people as a key part of the Movement for Black Lives. Our insistence on lifting up loving, critical solidarities between Black women and our need to recognize Black queer and straight women’s erotic pleasure as powerful evidence of #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlJoy.

As Black feminism continues to reject respectability politics and embraces its ratchet, radical and round-the-way potentials, Set It Off offers several important images of Black feminist freedom: Frankie holding a gun to the head of the cop who cost her her job and her friend’s life; Cleo’s girlfriend, Ursula, standing on top of a car dancing not for a male gaze, but for her butch woman partner admiring from below; Tisean’s once-timid face curled behind

 

 

 

gun smoke after she shoots the abusive boss who steals the women’s haul; four Black women laughing, smoking blunts and bugging out on a rooftop, then gripping hands on the hood of a car, swimming in money stolen from The Man.

Set It Off’s Black feminist vision is clearest in the final scene, after Stony has fled to Mexico and called her Good Black man boyfriend (Blair Underwood) to say goodbye. In the closing shot, we see Stony driving down an open road in another country, alone. She has cut her hair, taken the money, gathered her pain and caught a bus to her future. She has chosen herself over her man and created a freedom and a mobility that most American film and literature reserves for white men. She loves her homegirls and carries them with her as she makes her moves for herself. Extending the tradition of Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and more, this is an iconic image of Black feminist survival.

Even for those who don’t see themselves as Black feminists, Set It Off makes it impossible not to see the overlapping power structures Black women live in. Maybe, for you, it’s when you watch Tisean, shot by bank security, die childless in her homegirl’s lap, dreaming of escape to pleasure in a banana flambé. Maybe it’s watching Stony’s face wash over with anguished non-consent as she has transactional sex with a local business owner to put her brother through college. Maybe it’s Frankie’s pained response to the Black woman police officer (Ella Joyce) who watches her traumatic interrogation by the white male cops while sipping water and not even bothering, as Frankie puts it, “to ask me if I was thirsty, sista.'” Maybe it’s watching Cleo’s final scene and wondering why, in order to finally fully exercise her big Black woman masculinity, she has to die tragically.

Or maybe it’s the moment that came to mind for me and so many of my own homegirls when I asked them which line stuck out for them now, twenty years later. Almost all of us chose the same moment — the line that asks the question we as Black women, queer people, trans people and feminists so often ask when we find ourselves up against the walls of intersectional violence — still surviving, still living, still loving ourselves and each other fiercely:

“What’s the f**king procedure?”

Watch Queen Latifah talk bisexuality in her Emmy-nominated film Bessie in our exclusive interview above.

(Photo: New Line Cinema/Getty Images)

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