The Post-Industrial City and Gangsta Film: Set It Off

Kara Keeling discusses the urban space of gangsta films as a “post-industrial city” that explain the economic and social reality of the 80’s and 90’s due to the changing conditions of urban, working class, black neighborhoods. Throughout the changes in urban ‘hoods, Keeling discusses the concept of “ghettocentrism” and it’s importance in gangsta films which heavily focuses on a new social reality that centers on the negativity surrounding black youth (Keeling, 120). Likewise, part of ghettocentrism, Keeling recognizes in gangsta films is the, “popularity and profitability of…existing forms of mass produced entertainment” (Keeling, 121). Such mass produced entertainment heavily focuses on rap music and the associating cultural stereotypes; i.e. the ghetto for example. In Set It Off (Dir. F. Gary Gray, 1996), we get a view of ghettocentrism in the post-industrial, poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles by seeing what options are available and which options are not for the four women in the movie.

One example in the film that identifies the post-industrial city is the lack of economic opportunity and availability of goods job. When Clio, Stony, Frankie and T.T. (Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise, respectively) are smoking weed on a rooftop that overlooks an old factory, Clio informs the group (and the audience for that matter) that when the company was in business, they use to pay $15 an hour. Clio in turn, imagines how she would behave, had she the opportunity to work there in which she says they would have to pull her away from the machine, and that she would be willing to work overtime for $22 an hour. (Clip below posted by user Rezaes, on YouTube)


By contrast, the post-industrial jobs available for those without higher education or skills revolve around service jobs. Service jobs cater to performing a service of some kind and often require little or no skills, poor pay, and employees are often expendable because training is not costly for a company. The film highlights this idea with the occupation of the four women as janitors for rich (white) people. Their pay is minimal, their job is low status, the pay is poor, and likewise they receive no benefits (such as childcare, healthcare, etc.).

The lack of economic options and the social stigmas the women face in the post-industrial city unsurprisingly force the women to consider illegal ventures for making money. Although prostitution, drugs, selling contraband items, or localized crime such as burglary are among the illegal options available, they instead set their sights on robbing banks. Thus, one of the biggest examples of the post-industrial city that Set It Off emphasizes is the gap between the rich and the poor and the ways in which the poor can possibly compete with the rich, one way of which is through “stealing”. This Robin Hood paradigm of taking from the rich to give to themselves (the poor) is prevalent throughout the film in their justifications for robbing banks. To the women, they are taking back what should be theirs had the system not cheated them, discriminated them, hurt them, or ignored them in the first place. The “system” in this case encompasses those mechanisms of society that have kept them from receiving a quality education, viable economic opportunities, for example or those mechanisms that have discriminated against them based on class, race, gender, etc. Likewise T.T.’s comments about taxes from her paycheck shows how very little gets redistributed to those who need it (i.e. form of childcare services, healthcare, etc.) In this case, Set It Off uses the setting of the post-industrial city and the plight of four black women who have somehow been cheated/robbed by the system to exact their revenge.

Works Cited:

Keeling, Kara. The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic of the Black Femme and the Image of Common Sense. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. 118-37.

Set It Off. Dir. F. Gary Gray. Perf. Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, 1998.

“Set It Off-Smokin'”. Posted by Rezaes. YouTube. 2008.

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