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“Thelma & Louise” vs. “Set It Off”: The Power of Imagery

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Earlier this week, I watched the 1996 movie Set It Off for the nth time. As with most films, after numerous viewings, nothing in the storyline was new. And yet, the latest consumption left me acutely sad. Significantly more disturbed than in times past by the chilling final scenes.

I planned to write a commentary on this film immediately after its conclusion. But as often is the case, God moved my attention from writing as intended, for reasons that were not clear at the time. I placed the commentary on the back burner and just moved on to other priorities.

The reasons that God redirected my attention from writing about Set If Off became clear while viewing a different movie just days later; Thelma & Louise, released in 1991.

The two films share a number of themes:

  • Both feature females in roles uncommon for American studios and audiences. Namely, Set If Off follows a crew of discouraged black women that goes on a spree of car thefts, bank robberies, and ultimately murder. Thelma & Louise begins with a man known by townspeople to have a bad reputation, attempting to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) in the parking lot of a local bar. The scene ends with Thelma’s friend, Louise (Susan Sarandan) fatally shooting the attempted rapist. The murder spirals down in the pair evading authorities, robbery, gunplay, assaulting a police, and destroying police property.
  • The films convey deep wounds the featured characters carry from prior experiences and prevailing conditions. In Set It Off, Frankie (Vivica Fox) unfairly loses her job at a local bank. Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) mourns the loss of her brother Stevie (Chaz Lamar Shepard) who was gunned down by police. T.T. (Kimberley Elise) is facing a custody crisis, her child having been removed by protective services. And Cleo (Queen Latifah), a heavy-drinking butch lesbian is checking out of mainstream society, preoccupied with customizing her classic car. Each character is facing financial challenges. In Thelma & Louise, Thelma suffers from a psychologically abusive husband and a marriage that lacks emotional support. Louise harbors deep-seated trauma over a rape that the film conceals from the viewer until late in the plot. 
  • In both films, the escalation of criminal activity is marked by violations of trust. In Set It Off, a janitorial service boss Luther (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) steals the crew’s spoils from an early bank heist that the women concealed in a ventilation duct of office building where they worked as janitors. The crew votes to hit another bank to recoup its losses. Stony, after contemplating, chooses to go along fully aware that her lover, Keith (Blair Underwood), runs the bank. In Thelma & Louise, J.D. (Brad Pitt) romances Thelma, only to steal money Thelma had stashed on behalf of the pair of fugitives. This leads Thelma to obtain more money by robbing a rural store at gunpoint.

Movie watchers can draw other parallels. But arguably, the most salient contrast comes in the closing minutes of these films. Viewing the conclusion of Thelma & Louise crystallized what is immensely troubling about Set It Off. When we consider the backdrop of criminal justice issues facing African Americans — that is, the questionable (and often fatal) tasing, choking, beating, and shooting of blacks — how the two films end demonstrates a projection of certain imagery that plays out in the regular valuing and devaluing of certain lives. Images that affix themselves to deep regions in the American psyche, manifesting in frequent tragedies involving police and African Americans. Thelma & Louise ends with the multi-felony pair fleeing a high-speed chase that leads to the edge of a Grand Canyon cliff. Pausing, with police gathered at their rear, Thelma and Louise make a death pact, then ride full throttle over a cliff into a fading screen. Viewers are left to their imaginations and quickly redirected to visual memories of the pair’s abiding friendship.

Set It Off take a dramatically different course. Here, the script climaxes with separate scenes where Cleo and later Frankie are riddled with bullets that rip through their flesh. The audience is invited to a close-up of blood spewing out of Cleo’s mouth. Frankie’s demise is displayed in slow motion, where a shot gun blast blows a hole through here back that tears through her chest. Clearly, two of the most violent scenes of black women being killed by police in history of American film.

The lasting image of Thelma and Louise is that of innocence. Virtuous friends who remain together to the [courageous] end. In Set It Off, crew members go their separate ways. Two are gun down in what looked like the trapping and firing on beasts of the field.

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The obvious retort to this observation is, “Well, both Cleo and Frankie chose to go out in a blaze of glory. Both drawing guns on police. In contrast, Thelma and Louise chose to end their lives without endangering police.” At first glance, it appears to be a reasonable assessment. However, it suffers from two glaring oversights.

First, Thelma and Louise arrived at the cliff after smashing into a number of police cars, causing what one could plausibly conclude serious injuries or death. And this followed the pair tying-up and police officer and placing him in trunk of his cruiser. In neither instance of the pair smashing through police cruisers did the fleeing pair come under heavy gun fire. They were miraculously spared a hail of bullets that would likely occur in a similar real-life situation where a car is considered a “deadly weapon”. Despite their violent encounters with police, Thelma and Louise received the benefit of a later peaceful capture.

In addition, a not so minor point with Cleo’s demise, at-least, points to another dichotomy. Police unloaded hundreds of rounds before she exited her car with a semi-automatic in hand. Shotgun rounds flooded her car with the precipitating crashes seen in Thelma & Louise. In this sense, the very actions taken by Louise, who drove recklessly through police blockades, smashing several along the way, did not merit a single round. Cleo, who engaged the hydraulics for stereotypical affects, sustained an onslaught of police gun fire for actions much less threatening than those taken by Louise. Cleo emerging from her car did not invoke the heavy gun fire she sustained. By the time Cleo displayed her semi-automatic weapon, the kill-shooting was well underway .

Second, a “they drew guns” logic concerning Set If Off suffers from the same problem of a driving into the epicenter of a tornado in order to find safety. Driving in the direction of a tornado is a choice. 

A script defined the context of the closing scenes in Set It Off. These are not real people or historical events, but images created in the minds of Hollywood writers and directors. Surely, Set It Off could have ended in myriad ways, without precipitating events that would most likely end in black women being cut down like wild animals. For instance, could not the same virtue ascribed to Thelma and Louise have been appropriate for Cleo and Frankie? After all, the film included an African American female officer, Detective Waller (Ella Joyce), who could have provided a life-saving role as mediator. Even a car crash that ended the high-speed chase could have provided a dramatic conclusion, leaving the audience (particularly young people) with something upon which to reflect. Numerous options existed, but a storyline that had not one, but two black women confronting overwhelming force, was a chosen option. Making screenwriter/director decisions that would culminate with police filling black women with hot lead was also a chosen option. 

Conversely, Thelma & Louise could have ended in a bloody confrontation. The script could have called for the pair being killed during their dangerous chase. Likewise, the gun-toting pair could have fired their their weapons into the crowd of onlooking police during the final scene. Of course, that was not the case. And viewers would not see Geena Davis’ head blown open or Susan Sarandan’s chest cavity exploding. This is not to advocate for film scenes such as this, per se, but simply to illustrate the ways in which imagery sends powerful messages about matters of race. Imagery that resulted from chosen options.

One movie script that featured white women followed a course that hinted at a kind of desperate virtue for Thelma and Louise. Another script that followed the exploits of black women ended with a gauntlet of shot guns and 9-millimeters rounds, suitable only for putting-down the most vicious dogs. Imagery of white women and women of African descent.

It is impossible to determine how many people have viewed these two films, but we can safely say millions. For those millions, even the evil committed by white women was protected or homogenized at the end. As for the black women, they deserved as many rounds of hot lead that time would permit. “Those niggers got what was coming to them”, sanctimonious apologists,who in-fact harbor deep-seated racist sentiments, would argue. The same maintains a mindset that finds nothing wrong in our endless news of police killing black suspects, often under suspicious circumstances. A mindset subtly filled by imagery plastered across films such as Set It Off.

Two movies, so paralleled in their storylines. So juxtaposed in their endings. 

What does this type of imagery produce in our society? 

 


 Thelma & Louise

 

Set It Off

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