Black Women as Godfathers and Gangstas: Set It Off's Divergence from the New Black Aesthetic

Curator's Note

Set It Off (F. Gary Gray, 1996) challenged traditional understandings of survival by exploring the gendered differences between necessity and over-indulgence. Although there are similarities between the film and other Black Gangsta films that were released prior (i.e. Boyz n the ‘Hood, Dead Presidents, New Jack City), Gray’s film offers nuances that make it unique to its predecessors.[1]  Starring Jada Pinkett (Smith), Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise, the film juxtaposed how, despite varying circumstances, these Black women must still resort to a shared decision/necessity to begin robbing banks. Also, Gray’s use of the character Cleo (Queen Latifah) as the resident “gangsta” challenged conceptions of masculinity and sexuality. By capitalizing on familiar thematic tropes that constituted the ‘New Black Aesthetic” using Black womanhood, Gray simultaneously subverted and affirmed assumptions about the lives and experiences of low-income Black communities.

One of the most common sentiments within the Black Gangsta film genre is the lust for overindulgence and excess. Films like New Jack City, Boyz N the ‘Hood, and Menace II Society overtly prioritized the desire for wealth and material possessions. However, Set It Off attempted to visualize complex Black women and their own attempts to distinguish necessity from exuberance. Many of the early films of this genre unabashedly borrowed from films like The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983), which emphasized the acquisition of the “American dream” and the accrual of wealth by any means. In the above scene, Gray teases audiences with an intertextual reference that pays homage directly to The Godfather. As the quartet discusses the possibility of robbing a second bank they replicate “the meeting of the five families” as seen in The Godfather, using Italian accents and names. It is a simplistic, yet incredibly important moment for the film because it explicitly connects low-income Black communities, to the aspirations within the mob film genre, via Black women’s bodies and experiences. But unlike its predecessors, these Black women are rendered without options or choices for otherwise. In Kimberly Springer’s essay “Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation” she notes that, “These women sacrificed their lives in an effort to advance despite a system of economic exploitation and social structures designed to work against them.”[2] So while replicating classic gangster imagery, Gray also challenges assumptions by evoking empathy for women attempting to survive dire circumstances.

Another significant subversion in the film is the absence of any cis-male leading characters and the representation of Cleo (Queen Latifah) as a symbol of masculinity and a true gangster. Typically, as discussed by Todd Boyd, “Excess and oppressed Black masculinity are expressed symbolically through an exaggerated phallus, high-powered weaponry, and the ability to kill at will…”[3] By not having any male leads, Gray transposes the characteristics usually attributed to male bodies onto that of the lesbian-identified body of Cleo. Cleo shares many similarities with male characters in previous Black Gangsta films in that she seems content in her socio-economic condition and has no expectation to escape those confines. Similar to John Singleton’s character Doughboy (Ice Cube) in Boyz n the Hood, Cleo has normalized and found solace in her socio-economic circumstances. At the beginning of the above clip she affirms to Stony that, “The hood is where I belong” and that she is “nothing but a hood rat.” Kara Keeling goes further to discuss Cleo’s subversion of heteronormativity and final resolve, stating, “Cleo cannot see herself in a life outside of the one she lives in the postindustrial city that defines and restrains her.”[4] Keeling continues, noting that “Cleo’s self-identification as ‘belonging’ in the hood, in addition to other elements of her characterizations, allows her to be recognized as a representative of the ghettocentric worldview expressed in gangsta rap.”[5] By representing the gangsta through the embodiment of a lesbian woman, Gray challenges the conceptual imagining of the term. For Kimberly Springer, this subversion is the primary justification of Cleo’s dramatic death. She states that, “In my opinion, Cleo dies twice, and suffers the most violent death, because she is a woman who transgressed gender, race, and heterosexual norms unrepentantly. Unlike Stony, Cleo is killed in part because she had no aspirations to be anything but a ‘hood rat and was open about her lesbianism.”[6] Thus Cleo’s performance of masculinity authenticates Set it Off as a gangsta film while simultaneously queering this image in a manner that complicates and subverts the typically, male-bodied gangsta.

Overall, Set It Off interrogates what it means to survive, what constitutes freedom, and who can be a true gangsta via the bodies of often-erased, Black women. As a hybrid film targeting both Black low-income communities and the emerging Black middle class who popularized women-centered films like Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995) and Love Jones (Theodore Witcher, 1997), Set It Off integrated identifiable themes with unlikely subjects. Through its exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality, the film reconciles with the New Black Aesthetic’s devotion to hyper-masculinity and offers nuance in a familiar setting.


End Notes

[1] For the purpose of this paper, the “Black Gangsta Film” constitutes the films of the late eighties and nineties defined as the New Black Aesthetic.

[2] Kimberly Springer, “Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation,” in Reel Knockouts : Violent Women in the Movies, eds. McCaughey, Martha, and King, Neal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 195.

[3] Todd Edward Boyd, Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the ’Hood and Beyond, First Printing edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 67.

[4] Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007), 124.

[5] Kara Keeling defines ghettocentrism as the “historically specific reaction to and articulation of a cinematic social reality produced at the juncture between globalizing capitalism and contemporary U.S. racism,” 120.

[6] Kimberly Springer, 193.

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