F. Gary Gray, the director of the 1996 film Set It Off, began his career directing rap music videos. While he transitioned to major films in 1995 with the gangsta film Friday, he kept directing music videos well until the 2000s. Gray’s music video background had a definite influence on the way Set It Off was shot, going so far as to have scenes that look like they came right out of rap music videos.
Many of the scenes in Set It Off take place inside, outside, on top of, besides, or around cars. They frame a lot of the action, from the discussion of and escape from the bank heists, the police chase, and even the proposition of Stony (in which she agrees to sex in order to get money for her brother), take place in cars. However, the cars feel very much in place. The East Coast setting, in particular the city of L.A., is extremely car-centric. L.A. is known as a “driving city,” a place in which the automobile is the most common mode of transportation. Additionally, and perhaps even more interestingly, cars are themselves very central in rap videos. I wanted to take a look at some of Gray’s rap videos to see if I could see any particular similarities between them and the film.
In TLC’s “Waterfalls” (1995), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WEtxJ4-sh4, not only is there a car, but it is a direct link to ghettocentric culture. The open-top car cruising slowly down the street is a trope so common in rap videos it’s practically a necessity. However, in “Waterfalls” the gangsta life is not idealized. A young boy is shot dealing (implied) drugs as his phantom-mother watches in horror. Stevie, Stony’s younger brother whom she wants out of the ghetto, is shot not by other gangstas but by police who think he is a gangsta. Both of these boys’ deaths were tragic, and they both had something to do with the gangsta culture. As the nameless boy in “Waterfalls” die, ghostly bills float swirl in the air, a reference to the fact that this boy died for money. This theme is echoed in Set It Off. If the four women, Stony, Cleo, Frankie, and T.T., had not needed money so desperately, all four would be alive by the end. There is also the scene, more closely echoing the music video, where money is being sprinkled by Stony, who is above the three other women. Interesting, considering that Stony is the only one of them to survive.
In Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” (2000), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYxAiK6VnXw, there is an almost two-minute long mixed shot of Big Boi cleaning his mint-condition antique-looking car before, at the two-minute marker, it gets blown up by lightning. Ms. Jackson herself begins the video by driving along the road, scowling at OutKast and their rundown house. The car is the nicest thing the two men apparently own, rather like Cleo’s car. Their house is falling down around them, and they certainly aren’t dressed in high-style. Ms. Jackson was out in a bathrobe and curlers, again indicating, if not directly a lack of wealth, a definite lack of socioeconomic status. Besides similarly implied economic situations (the poor housing) and car-focus, this video did not have much in common with Set It Off, but it, along with Set It Off and “Waterfalls,” show a dramatic opposition to “Show Me What You Got.”
In Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got”(2006) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS4U-HAHwps, not only it begin with credits like a movie, half the video is a car race between Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., two very famous, very white professional race car drivers. The two cars are gorgeous, obviously expensive machines, and they are racing around the gorgeous, obviously expensive vacation destination of Monaco. The scene reminded me of the closing scene of Set it Off where Stony is driving next to the sea in gorgeous, less expensive Mexico. Unlike “Waterfalls” and Set It Off, “Show Me What You Got” glorifies the crap out of the gangsta lifestyle. Jay-Z is shown being chauffeured by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a car that costs AT LEAST one hundred thousand dollars, driving around Monaco before he moves the race to the water and replaces the two race car drivers with two exotic, bikini-clad women and the cars with speedboats. In a scene almost as common as a the slow cruise in a convertible, Jay-Z ends up in an exclusive party, playing high stakes poker with more exotic women and bottles of champagne. Gangsta living has sure been kind to Jay-Z, and he has no qualms with showing it off. It is in this video that the image of the money on top of the car, the dancing Ursula in lingerie on top of the car, the soiree Keith takes Stony, would appear. They were glorifications, images meant to cause excitement at the possibility of luxury, sex, wealth.
On a final note, it is interesting to me that “Waterfalls,” shot a year before Set It Off, has the most in common with the film. “Waterfalls” has a direct line with Set It Off as a warning; I would venture to say that robbing banks would be considered chasing waterfalls. “Ms. Jackson” has less in common, and “Show Me What You Got” seems another world, one in which the four women would have gotten away with everything after a suitably dramatic car chase.
F. Gary Gray’s body of work information: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0336620/#Director
Picture of the four women over the car: http://123nonstop.com/pictures/Set_It_Off
Picture of gun-wielding Cleo: http://www.theunabashedqueer.com/tag/queen-latifah-lesbian