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).

Girls Trip (2017)

At some level this is a black women’s twist on a gross-out comedy, which is not traditionally a genre I’ve liked, and yet… It may be too long (at 122 minutes, a good half-hour could easily have been excised), it may be quite mean about celebrity gossip journalists and women posing for selfies on Instagram (I felt like something personal was going on there), it may wrap things up with an excess of saccharine (though admirably focused on women’s friendship with one another rather than on men), but it really is very funny. At times it’s exceptionally funny, especially Tiffany Haddish as Dina, a performer I wasn’t aware of before, but whom I now expect to be in everything, and deservedly so (the scene where she imagines her revenge on a cheating man is satisfying in so many ways). It also features quite the most unexpected male nudity.

It feels like Bridesmaids was in the writers’ minds as a touchstone (not least because they have an actor, Kate Walsh, apparently doing her best to imitate Kristen Wiig), but it also has the brio of Magic Mike XXL in both its setting in the American south (here New Orleans), and its single-minded focus on the buddies-on-a-trip narrative (the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith helps in that regard; she and Queen Latifah also inspire a sweet shout-out to Set It Off, a real 90s classic of the black women buddy genre). Plus, the focus on the women means it dispenses with some of the unpleasantness that marked the women characters in the same director’s The Best Man (1999).

In all, a top comedy, which really deserves its success.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Malcolm D. Lee; Writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver; Cinematographer Greg Gardiner; Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017.

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.