Set It Off (1996)

In many ways this is a genre heist flick, a product of the Hollywood system, but unlike most such products it’s very clearly rooted in a systemic understanding of class and racism as it applies to the home of the movies, Los Angeles, where haves and have nots are strictly separated. It’s about four women just trying to get by, but being repeatedly failed by a corrupt, racist system — the one that every so often the rest of America is forced to admit is broken before everyone moves on, and then it’s all repeated once again. This is precisely the world of state and police violence against Black communities that so many films in the 90s were about, and which has continued to recur ever since in popular culture and, sadly, in reality.


In the 90s, it seems, it was difficult to get funding for films about Black lives or experiences unless they were gritty, set in the projects, and had an almost moralistic sense of come-uppance for those whose lives dared to transgress the boundaries strictly set by authority, so I regret that we didn’t get an Oceans 11 style heist caper in which everyone managed to get away, but that’s not what this film is about. In fact, one of its particular strengths is in making it clear just what exactly is oppressing our heroines, and it’s not other Black women. This is Los Angeles, after all, and there aren’t many opportunities available to these women. Through a series of events that are as brutally predictable as they are unsuprisingly still very current, each is beaten down to the point where committing a bank robbery seems like a viable option, and so it goes. The action when it comes is pretty thrilling and grandly done, and even the token figure of white empathy feels somewhat rounded (John C. McGinley, who seemingly always used to play these sorts of authority figure roles), even if in the current climate it feels difficult to believe he’d actually Care. This is a strong film that bucks certain trends while playing into others, but it’s never unclear who the empathetic heroes of this film really are, and that’s as it should be.

Set It Off film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier; Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky; Starring Jada Pinkett Smith [as “Jada Pinkett”], Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Mid City, Wellington, May 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 21 April 2020).

The Fate of the Furious (aka Fast & Furious 8, 2017)

An enormously silly movie. The gang is still led by Vin Diesel’s Dom, but his allegiances are placed into question by the arrival on the scene of cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). The script still throws around the word “family” the requisite number of times, and truly my heart is warmed by seeing Jason Statham properly brought into the fold — even if he’s still somewhat an anti-hero, he is at least now aligned with the forces of good, with a rather heavy-handed Hard Boiled hommage which nevertheless plays into Statham’s established heroic character trait of protecting kids. And yet… and yet, I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced by Dom’s actions, nor by Charlize’s villain — though, incidentally, possibly the most furious thing in the film is the fingers of her and Nathalie Emmanuel’s hacktivist Ramsey (introduced in the last film), as they (ridiculously) hack and counter-hack one another. I’m also not convinced by the fate of poor Elsa Pataky, sidelined since Michelle Rodriguez returned in the sixth film. Look, I still like everyone involved and I’ll still go see number nine (can I get an early vote in for some kind of K9 pun?) but this isn’t their finest work.

The Fate of the Furious film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 14 April 2017.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.

The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).

There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.

Straight Outta Compton film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015.