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Monday, July 23, 2018

Beyond the Canon—Set It Off + Dog Day Afternoon

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996) with Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) on Sat, Aug 4.

By Fanta Sylla

Has there ever been a right reason to rob a bank? Ever since its genesis, the heist genre—dated almost universally by film theorists and academics to 1950 with the release of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle—has attempted to answer that morally thorny question. One could also advance that the genre’s persistence and enduring relevance has provided another answer: there has never been a right reason to rob a bank, but the act of theft can make for films of great beauty. Ultimately, the whys have never really mattered, it’s always been about the hows.

In his book Stealing with Style: The Heist Film, Daryl Lee cites Kirsten Moana Thompson’s analysis of our universal fascination with the genre: “Heist films afford a powerful screen identification with criminals breaking the law, providing escapism and voyeurism, or in other words the pleasure of watching stories about illicit worlds and transgressive individuals…that may appeal to our fantasies and desire.” As Lee later points out, the pleasure we derive from the heist can also be compared to the one we derive from the musical and the slapstick comedy. In these genres, dance routines and pratfalls disrupt the narrative for pure and gratuitous moments of kinetic spectacle. And while the comparison is astute—the robbery scene is indeed choreographed and spectacular—we cannot really define it as a narrative disruption. Isn’t a significant part of the heist film dedicated to the planning of the robbery?

Within the compendium of great heist films, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996) occupy a similar position as transgressors. Through their use of different bodies, settings, and locations; their hybridization of various genre tropes; and finally their willingness to give prominence to a certain social context via their characters’ motivations, both hijack the generic heist program, subverting the conventions that gave it its solid and enduringly fertile structure.

In the case of Dog Day Afternoon, we begin where we’ve been conditioned to climax, with the scene of the robbery. Al Pacino’s helpless Sonny Wortzik is a peculiar character with an unusually romantic motivation behind his crime. No professional crook, he’s an ordinary man who’s put himself in an extraordinary situation. Then, within the first 10 minutes of the film, his plans unravel, and we understand that his failure is inevitable.

One can’t help thinking that, by choosing four young working-class black women living in the LA hood as its protagonists, director F. Gary Gray was also setting himself up for failure: Set It Off, his second feature after the cult hit Friday (1995), came just one year after Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), a macho epic that powerfully re-articulated the heist genre’s white and patriarchal aspirations. With Set It Off’s social-realist dimension, sensitive portrayal of young black womanhood, and exploration of such realities as prostitution, single motherhood, and police brutality, Gray also had the desire to give black women their place in the tradition of the hood film genre, which shares with the heist genre a structural disregard for women.

And yet, Set It Off seems to exist as if in a world that could willingly identify and empathize with four black women janitors and soon-to-be-criminals. Never sacrificing observation for the sake of action, Gray takes his time to look at his actresses (Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, and then-débutante Kimberly Elise) banter, get angry, cry, laugh, smoke, have sex, love, and die with great empathy. One is never under the impression that the film exists in the shadows of manly classics. On the contrary, Set It Off is a luminous, formally ambitious—Gray demonstrates a great sense of framing—object. From beginning to end it exhibits a bold confidence and true love for the cinematic form.

The film canon’s failure to register Set It Off didn’t prevent it from becoming a cult favorite. And when Malcolm D. Lee reunited Pinkett-Smith and Latifah in the comedy Girls Trip (2017), he was not only paying tribute to the film that paved the way for Girls Trip’s success, but to the spectators who have given Set It Off its rightful attention.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, Aug 4 at 5:30pm.

Fanta Sylla is a film critic based in Paris. Her work has appeared in Les Inrocks, The Village Voice, Reverse Shot, and more. She tweets @littleglissant.

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