widows (steve mcqueen, 2018)
music friday: 2013

african-american directors series: set it off (f. gary gray, 1996)

Had to watch this again after seeing Widows. There are obvious similarities between the two movies ... both involve four women turning into robbers. But it doesn't go a lot further than that. Returning to my comments on Widows...

I said Widows was a heist movie with a high-class sheen. Set It Off is most definitely not about the upper classes. In Widows, four fairly well-off women whose partners die in a robbery band together to pull off a heist of their own, because their men hadn't left them anything to live on. In Set It Off, four working-class and lower women who always need money realize they could make a score by robbing a bank. Only one of the four had a white-collar job, working in a bank, and she was fired, resulting in her joining her friends who work for a cleaning service. The women of Widows want to resume their good life ... the women of Set It Off want to escape from the low-rent drudgery of their lives.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, lies in the four characters in each movie. In Widows, the four have never met before their husbands died. In Set It Off, the four are friends from way back. Widows shows women of disparate backgrounds coming together for one heist. Set It Off shows four women, distinct characters to be sure, who all come from the same background.

One noteworthy aspect of Widows is the cast and crew, filled with Oscar winners and a ton of "That Guys". It's a prestige picture, even though it's a heist film, because it has Steve McQueen directing and Viola Davis and Liam Neeson and more. Set It Off gets superb performances from the four leads, but they don't come pre-packaged as a prestige outfit. Queen Latifah was nominated for an Oscar, but that came seven years later. Director F. Gary Gray, who came out of music videos, had only directed one feature, Friday. Kimberly Elise, who plays one of the four, was making her first movie. Jada Pinkett was still mainly known for A Different World. And while Vivica A. Fox had a breakout year in 1996, that's because she was in Independence Day. Finally, while Widows had an abundance of riches in its supporting cast, Set It Off had Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley, and Ella Joyce (all of whom were fine). Oh, and Dr. Dre made his movie debut as a gun dealer named Black Sam.

The point being that expectations were different for Set It Off, which was happy to be a genre movie, than for Widows, which was after other things (like an Oscar for Viola Davis). I'm willing to say that Widows is the better movie. But Set It Off is more enjoyable, and there is nothing in Widows to match the camaraderie of the four bank robbers in Set It Off. Roger Ebert said it well. "The movie surprised and moved me: I expected a routine action picture and was amazed how much I started to care about the characters."

And, as I said to my wife when the song turned up, "Now you know where this song came from".

Finally, here's a making-of short that is actually interesting:

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


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