Early November last year Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old African American woman, was shot outside the home of a 54-year-old white man in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Several hours earlier, she had crashed her car into a parked vehicle. She couldn’t find her cellphone. She was drunk, high and possibly concussed. She was a young black woman looking for help in a society that routinely asserts black bodies are volatile, more likely to perpetuate violence than seek assistance.
The Internet barely yawned at the news. The case was similar to Jonathan Ferrell’s yet its dissimilar treatment in the media seemed one more disappointing example of how America values the lives of African-American women in the year 2013. A brief (not at all comprehensive) year in review: After an altercation with her husband, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall and was sentenced to twenty years in prison because a jury of her peers was not convinced she stood her ground; Rachel Jeantel got slammed for not telling the truth the way we wanted to hear it; countless African-American women were harassed, sexually assaulted, murdered and/or ignored; Paula Deen was charged for using the N word—jk, jk, a former employee filed a lawsuit against Paula and her brother, Uncle Bubba, for racial and sexual discrimination in the work place; Pop tarts Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus found new ways to use the bodies of African-American women as twerking decorations to distract, sloppily, from their underwhelming musical performances; Saturday Night Live faced accusations of casting negligence by presenting a cast devoid of a black comedienne for the sixth consecutive year in a row; and we ended the year on a debate about whether Ani DiFranco had the right to get righteous on a slave plantation—or is it that we argued whether people of African descent had the right to be angry about the location choice.
On New Year’s, I, like many others, look to the new year optimistically. The myth of Jan 1st is, of course, reliant on the belief that somehow things will get better, that we can do more, that those goals we set the year before might be achievable this year with more determination. While others this holiday season debated whether Love Actually was actually a holiday film or perhaps what elements must be present to constitute a holiday film, I decided to re-watch those films that have a sentimental meaning to me irrespective of whether they might be universally understood that way. New Year’s Eve, before I joined friends for a party, I sat down to watch the underrated classic Set It Off.
Seventeen years ago the world was made a better, richer place. Set it Off was released. Though there have been countless generic thrillers and heist films produced since, there hasn’t been one like Set it Off. I watch the film ever year for emotional cleansing. After each viewing, I can’t believe how spectacularly underrated this film is and how infrequently the film is discussed retrospectively considering its contemporary relevance still, sadly. Advertised as a film about four black women in economic crisis, who resort to robbing banks, the movie is a critical imagining of what happens when four marginalized women, pushed to economic and emotional limits, dare to escape the circumstances into which they were forced. Boyz N The Hood, Dead Presidents, and Thelma & Louise influence the film, and it was released during a particular special movement in African-American cinema, which, inspired by hip hop and its rise in popularity, focused on the lives of working-class people of color and crime. For those curious the movement includes the aforementioned films, Menace II Society, Mi Vida Loca, etc. There are elements of the film easy to criticize—the uncanny plot, the ready easiness with which these women adopt a life of violent crime, the tacked on Disneyesque romantic relationship between Stoney (Pinkett-Smith) and Keith Weston (Blair Underwood), a charming banker. But these criticisms pale in comparison to the many amazing aspects of Set it Off—Queen Latifah in her best performance as an aggressive stud, whose deep love for her friends propels her to sacrifice her life in the hopes that they escape; Jada Pinkett Smith in her prime before she married Will Smith, became a scientologist and before she started her awful musical career; Vivica A. Fox’s Godfather impersonation, but better yet her character apologetically admitting to her friend “It ain’t you I’m mad at”; a loving relationship between four women that is complex and rich and fulfilling; Queen Latifah as an aggressive stud. Her performance is that good, it bears repeating.
Set It Off takes the lives of its characters seriously, treating them with a tenderness rarely seen in contemporary film. As Eric McDowell pointed out in his most recent blog post, finding films that feature female characters yet alone female characters that exist outside of their relationships to men is rare. The women of Set It Off discuss their financial pitfalls, their fears, their frustration with an unfair legal system. They comfort, protect, forgive each other. They fight, occasionally. They rage against the racism and sexism they face daily yet “the movie is not about overt racism,” as the late Roger Ebert acknowledged in his review, “but about the buried realities of an economic system that expects women to lead lives the system does not allow them to afford.”
Hauntingly, the film operates on the simple premise that violence marks the experience of black women—not gun violence necessarily, but a type of violence more insidious, which attacks the psychological mindset of African-American women and teaches them their lives are of little worth. Of all the attributes to be admired, Set it Off is a genuine classic because of the film’s emotionally honest portrayals of being black, poor, female, queer in America—this is not a claim stressing the film’s realism, but a claim for the film’s ability to be emotionally honest, despite a country’s systemic vow to be dishonest about its past and its efforts to eradicate injustice. Set It Off has slowly disintegrated into pop culture ether, not because it lacks merit, but because of this country’s dishonesty. That’s a revelation I didn’t really understand until writing this post.
In a Salon essay critiquing Ani DiFranco’s faux apology, Brittney Cooper sums up the year 2013 more perfectly than anyone. “2013 was a year when we failed to be honest about the cancerous racism that continues to eat the U.S. body politic from the inside out. If we can’t be honest, we can’t win. We won’t be honest, and therefore we won’t win.” Cooper ends her essay stating if we want to be more “righteous on race” we need to be honest. It’s the word “if” that always gives me pause.