"Set It Off": On-the-Edge Reality

Revolutionary Worker #885, December 8, 1996

Set It Off, the latest film by director F. Gary Gray, is a movie people should definitely see. It's about friendship. It's about us against them, the poor against a heartless system.

This is a movie that reaches out and wraps a hand around your heart and doesn't let go until well after the film is over. It's about edges and the people who live on them. It's about what happens when people are pushed off the edge. And it says, straight up, it's better to fight and even die on your feet than to live on your knees.

Set It Off tells the story of four young Black women, Cleo (Queen Latifah), Stony (Jada Pinkett), Frankie (Vivica Fox) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise). They are proletarian women from the projects and streets of one of the poorest sections of South Central Los Angeles. These characters are real. You could meet any one of them sitting on the porch in Watts or hanging out in a parking lot in projects like Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs or Nickerson Gardens. They are sisters trying like crazy to survive and hoping to one day get out of the poverty and suffering they're stuck in. They've got their jokes and their dreams but they also know all about the reality of being poor and Black in America today. They work as minimum-wage janitors in the glittering skyscrapers of downtown L.A. They worry about getting paid under the table so they can continue to get government assistance for child care just so they can continue to work. And when ends don't meet, they close their eyes and do whatever they got to do for them-selves and their loved ones. They confront police brutality and murder--as LAPD enforcers invade and rampage against the people. And the scene when the police run amok in the projects will be very familiar to people in Watts and other parts of South Central.

The story of the women in Set It Off tells the reality of what millions of poor women are going through today. L.A. County recently announced that welfare money was going to be immediately slashed by $30, reducing the amount of money a fam-ily of three gets to around $565 a month. Food stamps are being slashed and even eliminated for millions of poor people. And, while California could never create enough jobs to employ everyone currently getting welfare and food stamps, L.A. County is going to make a major expansion of its slavery-like workfare program where people are forced to work off their welfare assistance.

The system is waging a war on the people, and Black women are being hit hard. People like the sisters in Set It Off are being pushed into a desperate situation...and pushed to take desperate measures.

The 26-year-old director, F. Gary Gray, said, "Anyone who has eyes and ears will want to see Set It Off, because you can easily identify with their story." There's Frankie, who counts on her job as a bank teller to try and make it out of the ghetto. There's Stony, who focuses her dreams on her younger brother going to college--and sees it all come crashing down after the LAPD invade the projects. Tisean has her child snatched away by the cold-hearted social-service bureaucracy. And Cleo's a character you won't forget. When Cleo is in the house everyone knows it. She's a rebel and an outlaw in a 1962 Chevy Impala with hydraulic lifts, and full-blast rap is the music that fuels her life. She's a strong woman with a huge heart, full of anger at oppression and injustice. Her mad dog look is as good as anyone's. And she's got a bottomless well of daring.

Director F. Gary Gray said, "This film, in the hands of different filmmakers, could have been a completely different film." And we certainly don't need another movie about the masses that's full of stereotype and no sympathy for the people. But Gray grew up in South Central, L.A. And in Set It Off, he put real characters on the screen with passion, heartache and a "no sur-ren-der" attitude. These are women who refuse to be broken by the system--and the movie challenges us to both understand and stand with these characters.

In one scene the four women are sitting on a rooftop trying to get away from the pain of their lives for just a few minutes. They are looking out over a factory--one of many that used to provide high-wage jobs for at least some of the people in South Central before they laid off tens of thousands or shut down altogether. And Cleo talks about how this factory used to pay people just like them $15 an hour to work there. Cleo talks about how she'd jump at the opportunity to do that today but they all know that just ain't gonna happen. It's at this point that the women decide to rob a bank as their only way out.

This scene brings to mind an observation by RCP National Spokesperson Carl Dix, who said there is no question of whether the people will respond in some way to the intense suffering brought down on them today--the question is whether it will be a desperate or a militant response.

The women in Set It Off take a desperate path when they decide to rob a bank. It's a one-in-a-million chance to try and get out of the ghetto, a "solution" that doesn't hit at the source of people's oppression. But you can't help but root for these women who are far more honest than the system that is ripping them off, discriminating against them, and killing their loved ones. And when they carefully plan and execute their heists, you gotta admire their intelligence and courage.

And when these sisters stand tall in the face of the enemy, it makes you think about potential--what could be, and what role women can play, in a conscious and militant, organized revolutionary struggle against the system. And what movies could be made about that!

Set It Off will entertain you, make you laugh, make you cry and make you angry. It's a movie with heart, that takes its power from the real life situation, struggle and dreams of the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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