If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.

Set it off3If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.

MV5BMjA1NjgzODM0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzYxNzU0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.

Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.

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Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.

In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.

tumblr_mdz3s45add1qhovk4o1_500Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.

In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?

Blair and Jada2I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.

But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.

set-it-off-1I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.

In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?

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Here’s what got me started on this post: the fact that Jonah Hill gets a lot of work as an actor. Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular problem with Hill, and I’m encouraged by the fact that directors are starting to cast him in interesting parts (Cyrus, Moneyball) that don’t demand 1) a fat guy, or 2) broad comedy. He can use those huge eyes and unusual, cupid-bow lips to enigmatic, sphinx-like effect. But his ubiquity at the box office just points out to me that the fat girls are not getting the same “luck.”

Let’s be clear here: Jonah Hill is fundamentally a comedian who’s getting very lucky with good parts because audiences seem to like seeing fat men on screen on a regular basis. In contrast, audiences hate seeing fat actresses, so directors keep them limited to comedy. It has been a very long time since 1998 when Camryn Manheim won an Emmy for her work in the TV series The Practice and held the statuette aloft in the air, proclaiming, “This is for all the fat girls!” Ah, 1998, you were so, so long ago. In the years since, Manheim has lost a lot of weight.

Fat actresses are permitted a very small share of parts. Back in 2005 Showtime offered us a series called Fat Actress, a satirical fictionalized version of the life of Kirstie Alley (left), but it was cancelled after 7 episodes. Like Alley, our current non-svelte actresses are comediennes. With all of Queen Latifah’s many talents — and she was so terrific in Chicago (2002) — no one can say she’s getting interesting roles. Likewise Melissa McCarthy, who had a sweetly goofy role in Gilmore Girls (2000-07) and displayed great broad comic genius in Bridesmaids (2011); currently her sitcom Mike and Molly (2010-present) is struggling with the network, critics, etc., despite the fact that McCarthy won the 2011 Best Actress Emmy for her work. In a now-infamous blog essay entitled “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room? (Even on TV?)” on the Marie Claire website, writer Maura Kelly held that she’d be “grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything.” Lovely. Her essay was so objectionable that the magazine received 28,000 complaint emails and the writer penned one of those fake apologies, saying, “I sorely regret that it upset people so much.” Wow, thanks, Kelly! Problem solved!

The only fat actress I can think of who’s gotten interesting roles is Gabourey Sidibe, whose astonishing turn as Precious (2009) won her piles of Best Actress awards and nominations. But let’s be frank: since appearing in that film her roles have paled in comparison. She has a supporting part in Laura Linney’s serio-comic series, The Big C (2011-present), and has a small part in the Ben Stiller project, Tower Heist (2011). What’s most interesting to me is that she resists being typecast as a comedienne — meaning that although she might struggle to find roles, she’s left the door open to doing more compelling work than “sassy fat Black woman.”

I don’t mind it that so many fat actresses appear in comedies. I just think that Jonah Hill’s example is a good one: being funny isn’t the only thing these women can do. The fact is that big bodies can do very interesting things in a scene, allowing an actor to make unexpected choices about a role. Their very mass appearing in film, alongside the great majority of actors who look like little slips of human beings, can convey such a range of emotion and motivation that a smart director can make great use of.

Of course, alongside my posts calling for more real noses, unusual mouths, and real female athletes’ bodies, this one is hopelessly idealistic. But who knows? Maybe in another year or two another fat actress will be holding her statuette in the air, and I’ll be crying with joy at the sight.