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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When I watched the opening minutes of Cathryne Czubek’s documentary — the credit fall over close-ups of red-polished fingernails loading, cocking, and shooting all manner of guns, jacked up with music that sounds appropriate for a spaghetti western of of the 1960s — I fretted that this film would turn out lite. Unserious. Uninformative. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun.” This is not a quote that reassures me that I’m about to see an important doc on women and gun culture.

But my mood shifted during the course of this film. I’m still not convinced that Czubek displayed the best editorial choices in selecting her subjects and her material. Yet what I’ve found is that A Girl and a Gun amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and that the subjects it raises still rattle around in my head during our current debates on guns. In the end I feel that even though it’s far from perfect, this doc gets at something crucial about American gun culture.

a-girl-and-a-gun-documentary-film-Cathryne-Czubek-movie-review-2-noscaleLet me just speak from my own perspective here — as a politically progressive advocate of gun-control who is also a feminist and film lover. Because seeing this film forced me to wrangle with the many conflicting and contradictory views I have regarding women and guns.

Just take the spate of women interviewed for this film who bought guns after being abused or stalked. Each of them spoke about what we know: that there’s very little comfort in a restraining order if your ex is willing to ignore it, and that there’s very little help from the police until he’s already gotten caught ignoring it. Lots of women live in terror in their own homes.

We all know this. We all know that women are caught in a big gap between the law and actual security. And, I think, we probably all agree that it’s kind of great that women in this situation arm themselves.

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Certainly the wider culture has taught us to appreciate this figure of the woman who, wronged by men, finds her own ways of protecting herself. My god, I enjoy this narrative so much that I have an entire category on this site entitled “women with guns.” Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is the only inherently feminist theme permitted in mainstream pop culture.

You see? I rationalize my appreciation for Women With Guns in film by calling it feminist. But having had this pointed out to be so baldly, I’m not sure I’m willing to stick with that characterization. Moreover, A Girl and a Gun shows that this is not the only reason actual women wield guns, nor is it a new or uncomplicated issue.

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There are plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable with female gun culture, starting with how it’s marketed to women. The pink guns — lots of pink guns. The long & fascinating history of selling guns to women during the 20th century, as unfolded by the historian Laura Browder (who might be the most camera-ready and beautiful historian I’ve ever seen, although perhaps that’s not saying a lot). The consistently condescending tone industry leaders use for addressing female customers. The way the customers buy into that condescension.

“In many ways the history of women and guns is the history of American women,” Browder offers persuasively over a raft of early 20th-c. images of women with guns — a forgotten history indeed. 

If anything, Czubek could have done more to clarify the ways that gun consumer culture is eager to pigeonhole women as a group. This, and the documentary’s rambling and anecdotal style, draw away from its effectiveness as a film.

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Perhaps the most illustrative moment emerges in the dynamic between a Stephanie Alexander and her daughter Aishia, who was permanently disabled by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting in New Jersey. Aishia speaks openly about feeling vulnerable in her wheelchair, and her reasons for purchasing a handgun to protect herself. Her mother, however, has gone a different route: her avenue to healing after her daughter’s trauma has led her to become a victims’ rights activist, speaking eloquently at public meetings for gun control and community activism.

But Stephanie also has a more complicated history with guns herself as a drug dealer and addict back in the 70s who owned a gun — par for the course for dealers. The filmmaker asks her whether she had a gun when her daughter was shot. “No,” she says — and explains that if she had, she would have sought out the shooter’s mother and “shot her in the face” because “that mother had to feel my pain.” It’s one of the most chilling moments in the film.

I finished this film with two thoughts in mind: that my own thoughts and feelings about guns ranged all over the map (almost as much as Stephanie Alexander’s) and that I wish Czubek had done more to clarify the problems raised by these topics. My recommendation of the film is based on the sense that it evokes the right questions — and that more work needs to be done to articulate the morass of conflicting positions on women and guns.

Lillian Gish with guns

25 February 2012

I’m sure you, too, have days when you need to see an excellent woman shoulder the gun and right some wrongs. Here’s how it’s gonna be, you’ll say, and that dude with “love” and “hate” written on his knuckles will just have to back off.