Monday, July 23, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #44 - Set It Off (1996, dir. F. Gary Gray)

Back in the early nineties, 1991 to be exact, the sudden mainstream success of John Singleton’s Boyz n The Hood and the subsequent hit Menace II Society (1993) lead to a rise in a new genre of film known as “Urban Cinema,” films that featured all, or mostly, African-American casts, directed by African-Americans and about the lower to middle class worlds and problems that pertained to African-Americans. Though necessary and seemingly new at the time this new rise in “Urban Cinema” was nothing actually new and, in fact, was merely a subtle nod to and update of the cinema of an earlier time: the 1970s and Blaxploitation to be exact.
In a nutshell Blaxploitation represented a genre that used exploitation films - cheap & easily made films that often focused on themes of sex and violence - and merged them with African-American casts, filmmakers and themes that were relevant to an African-American community. These films provided a much needed voice for a community that had up until then been relatively silenced or unseen in typical Hollywood films. But money talks and within a short window of time the box office success of these films created a boon for the industry and created a wide swath of new cinema to pull from.  This allowed the genre to grow from films primarily leaning toward exploitation to thrilling films about actual relatable problems facing the community. Suddenly for every Shaft or Foxy Brown was a Cooley High or a Car Wash.
Though separated by a decade, make no bones about it, “Urban Cinema” is Blaxploitation through and through, and one of its most interesting 90s entries is the tight thriller Set It Off (1996). Directed by F. Gary Gray, who cut his teeth on plenty of iconic rap videos for artists like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, this female-fronted bank robbery film leads with a powerful cast including Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett (pre Smith), Kimberley Elise and in a great, full character debut, the lovely Queen Latifah who steals the show as Cleo, a tough, thuggin’ lesbian (which quickly got the rumor mill running after this role) who leads all four of the woman into a situation of desperation that gives this film its edge.
After a bungled attempt from guys in their neighborhood the four women decide that robbing a bank not only seems absolutely doable but a solution to the problems that they have living in the inner city of Los Angeles. This proves problematic when the thrill of pulling off one job leads to a rash of robberies and the eventual breakdown and doubt of their relationships and commitment to doing “what they need to do” to get by.

Upon its initial release the film had some decent success but deserved to not be so quickly lumped into a genre that was looking to make a quick buck off of a fast film but instead foster an audience for a film filled with fantastic female performances, an original and taut plot and a great nod back to the genre it would originally have felt at home in.  Pick up this film especially if you think you know exactly how it will all come together - like the best classics of the Blaxploitation era this film is an honest and original surprise.
- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Denver Film Society

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