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hood rats April 3, 2007

Posted by Melissa in class, Set it off.
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I finished watching Set it off a few hours ago, and I am still bothered by the movie. Many things were troubling to me, but the most bothersome were 1) the condemnation of the black race by Keith, 2) the use of the token black female police officer, and 3) the transformation of Frankie from a respectable bank teller to a “ghetto thief.”
First, there is a scene in the film in which Keith states the problem with Stony and her feelings of being “caged” is a result of the lack of planning within the Black community (“we don’t plan for the future as a people”). Though the film attempts to address racial and class issues, I feel having Keith in the film (the “good” Black role model) only services the larger social agenda against poor Blacks in the 1990’s. The film was made in the late 90’s, around the period Bill Clinton was making serious cuts into social programs. There was a major misconception in society that the majority of people who prescribed to social welfare programs were black or Hispanic (the truth is that well over 60% of mothers on welfare are white), and a national dialogue centering on personal agency emerged (also seen in the attacks on affirmative action). There was the belief that all one needed to do to succeed was to work hard, pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Like Keith said, all one needed to do was to plan ahead. In having that line in the film, I think the greater message about the vicious cycle of life in poor neighborhoods is overshadowed by the possibility of success as embodied by Keith and his belief in a good plan. Though Stony shoots down Keith’s theory (with the mention of her murdered brother, and later with their discussion at the bankers reception) I think having a black character place blame on the black community for their own problems- completely ignoring the larger societal and institutional factor involved- is unfair.
The second problem I had with film, along the same lines as the problems I had with Keith, was the black female officer. What was her purpose? To take orders from her white partner? Or to simply give the audience another example of the “good” minority? She did nothing in the film other than repeat Det. Strode’s orders and curse the four other black women whenever she got the chance. I found her to be distracting and completely transparent (she was only in the film as a token figure to offset any criticism of the negative portrayal of Black people as criminals).
Finally, what I found to be one of the more disturbing aspects of the film was Frankie’s transformation. She began the film as a “normal” person, she spoke and dressed well. Her demeanor changes when she is fired from her job, no longer is she just a workingwoman, she becomes a “hard” thug. From the way she changed her usage of language and her aggressive attitude, it’s hard to believe that the woman we saw in the beginning is the same woman that was shot dead in the end. Was it necessary to change the character so much, or would it really have been too hard to believe that a “well-spoken and well-mannered” person could commit the crimes Frankie would devise?
I may have looked too much into some of the issues I have brought forth, but I do think they are interesting issues that should be discussed. Though the film made great strides for black actors in Hollywood, I don’t think the poor development of the social context of the women’s poverty is excusable- what could have been a strong social commentary turned into the run-of-the-mill Hollywood film.

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1. Matt - April 4, 2007

This is a strong commentary, but I don’t know if I agree with some of these critiques. First, I think that Keith’s comments are pretty soundly contradicted when Stony, who has been mulling it over, asks Cleo the same question: “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” “I donno. And I don’t care. I’m not even thinking about five years from now. I’m just trying to get through the /day/.” While your historicization of the movie really gets to the ideas of agency in the black community, why do you consider Keith’s question more salient than Cleo’s answer? I mean, I don’t emphathise with Keith at all, and I thought that the subsequent stair conversation between Stony and Cleo brought to the forefront the issues that you bring up: it’s not from ignorance, its due to the marginalized historical and societal place that her community has been shunted off into. Her ideas and actions can be read from that, and I think the movie enabled that.

I also read your critiques of Frankie and the female cop as problematic when taken together. I didn’t think the female cop was really relevant enough to the story to merit a sympathetic backstory, or whatever. Whatever she represents, it’s certainly not as important as the four protagonists.

But why is her conforming to the Law and Society– being a good black girl, I guess– so problematic when Frankie’s transformation away from that is some kind of sell out on the part of the filmmaker?

I really agree with your main point, that this film might be a little too Hollywoodized to say what you personally would like to have been said– but black actors have to make money, too.

What do you think?

2. sindhub - April 12, 2007

Hmm, just a side point: even if the black female cop is supposed to be the ‘good’ minority in the context of society, I thought that the movie portrayed her fairly negatively, even from the beginning when Frankie says to her, “You ain’t even gonna bother to ask me if I was thirsty, sister?” (she was coolly drinking a glass of water while Frankie was venting her frustration at her boss for firing her) I think, from the beginning, the movie portrayed the black female cop sort of as a ‘traitor’ to the sisterhood and solidarity that the four main characters have.

Stepping out of the movie, I just think it’s really interesting that the cycles you’re describing (not only the cycles of poverty and violence that the movie represents, but the cycle of falling into certain stereotypical beliefs/characterizations) are reproduced in the movie in a way that could be interpreted as reinforcing the contemporary social politics (in this case, furthering the myth about who’s on welfare, etc.)


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