Society for Cinema & Media Studies

"Rock-a-Bye, Baby!": Black Women Disrupting Gangs and Constructing Hip-Hop Gangsta Films Author(s): Beretta E. Smith-Shomade Source: Cinema Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Winter, 2003), pp. 25-40 Published by: University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/04/2013 12:48
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organized crime was more than movie fiction.NonimmigrantAfrican Americans in the gang business operated under similar circumstances. more recently."Rock-a-Bye."2 constructed by black directors (and screenwriters). Smith-Shomade Thisessay examinesthe culturalspecificityof the gangstergenre. 1930) and Scarface (Howard Hawks. Thefilms New Jack City.simperingmate tryingto restrainthe man from taking to the road or to crime or some such alternative. In hip-hop gangsta films. In the first third of the twentieth century.As CarlosClarens characterizes"the girl.were strong European patriarchs in immigrant families.any of which were vastlymore attractiveand romanticthan sex-denyingdomesticityand a nine-to-five Blackwomen were similarly job. She is the authorof ShadedLives: professor ? 2003 by the University Press. Yet in the 1930s. more important. We identify this world through its mise-en-scene. and Set It Off serve as case studies. traded and acquiredat the end of city warfare.. it actuallyhappened. Winter 2003 African-AmericanWomenand Television(Rutgers UniversityPress. No. the inclusion of black women as central to the gangster business not only transformsthe gangstergenre but.. as Thomas Schatz remarks. explicitlyor implicitly.PO. Smith-Shomade is a visiting scholar at the University of Houston andanassistant of mediaartsat the University of Arizona.These women were no more than objects and prizes.violence was largely visioned on screen through the rubric of gangsterism.TX78713-7819 of Texas CinemaJournal 42.crime films presented (white) women as ornaments and mothers who were consistentlyrelegated to the periphery. no sunset in the distance for the urbanrenegade. 1932).Baby!":BlackWomen Disrupting Gangs and Constructing Hip-HopGangsta Films by Beretta in Oscar Micheaux'sUnderworld (1937) and RalphCooper'sDark Manhattan(1937).59 on Thu. The filmic world of gangsters has received substantial critical attention over the last half-century. These shifting discourses have opened a space for attention to black ethnic gangsters and their cinematic counterparts. 2002).127. In particular..3This changed duringthe Beretta E. Sugar Hill. Historically. As presented by African American filmmakers."she is a "nagging."'Participantsin this dangerousworld. There is no limitless horizon.85. creating a model particular to African Americans-one that includes black women. Turf wars littered cinematic urban enclaves with bullets and bodies. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . ideas about genre blending and revisionist histories have forced many to reconsider the gangster and the gangster film.adheresto blackculturalnorms. But these wannabe Americans were not the only ones wreakinghavoc on the urban frontier. the traditional organized crime structure has been reconstructed. Box 7819. 2. This was an appeal that men could identifywith.Austin. 25 This content downloaded from 222. as in Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy."Naturein the gangster film is conspicuous primarilyin its absence .

Gary Gray. Invariably. and Lucky Luciano. While occupying spaces traditionallyheld by males. J. From its beginning. Bugsy Siegel. in whom it automaticallyarouses hatred. Ianni suggests that blackwomen play an integral role in the structureof black crime: "Thepresence of women even in positions of some authority is as distinctive and important a feature of black 26 CinemaJournal 42. No. The hip-hop gangsta film differs from the traditional urban-crime movie and even from the popular "boyz-n-the-hood"type in that it centers crime as a business and defers to black cultural norms by including black women in critical roles. Yet. Among many requirements. 1993). 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. despair. 1991). The activities of black gangsters took the form of policy gambling (numbers). Excavating these portrayalsof African American women offers an alternative reading of the traditionalgangstergenre. black crime families often integrate women into their business affairs. Sugar Hill (Leon Ichaso. black crime. Further. and craps (gambling with dice).1990s wave of black gangsterfilms. I call this new genre the hip-hop gangsta film. broadens notions of AfricanAmerican communities.In Black Mafia. space is made for black female leadership.and destruction.1996). shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathywith the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation. Early Crime/Crime Films. black women in hip-hop gangsta movies uniquely affirm and reconnect to certain African American culturalpractices frequently absent in presentations of ethnic life. prostitution.the business structures in which cinematic and real-life black gangsters operate differ because of the positioning of women in AfricanAmerican communities. and Set It Off(F. and urban direction.. Yet "the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone. especially given the need for strictadherencewith the Motion Picture ProductionCode of 1930 (Hays Code). despite the similaritywith their white immigrantcounterparts. This essay explores this generic paradox and the roles. the danger comes from being alone. similaractivitiesoccurred. Because familial concerns are presented in a contemporarycontext.the traditional view of the gangster genre was complicated and changed."5 Robert Warshow maintains that for the gangster on film.59 on Thu. leading to filmic depictions of real-life gangsters such as Bumpy Johnson.. violent and otherwise. FrancisA.85. for success is always the establishment of an individual preeminence that must be imposed on others. when gang activityfueled movie displaysof real-life mobsters such as Al Capone. organized crime referred to the "organizedvices"-illegal gambling. In AfricanAmericancommunities. and prostitution. the successful man is an outlaw."6 AfricanAmerican male gangsters follow in this "cinemaof loneliness"traditionthrough their paranoiaand lower economic/political positioning.4 The term gained widespread use at the height of 1930s gangsterism. narcotics. that African American women play in the 1990s hip-hop gangstafilms New Jack City (MarioVanPeebles.the lives of all these cinematic criminalsended in destitution. By including AfricanAmericanwomen as subjects and participants. usurious loans. Unlike other crime families. when manyAfricanAmericanwomen occupied positions and spaces previouslyreserved for men-mostly white-only. the Hays Code mandated that "crimesagainstthe law .

CraigWatkins. unlike the Italian kinship pattern. Hollywood found itself in financialcrisis.12 The mythology created by this "good nigga/bad nigga" dichotomy lent fuel and profit to the makersof Hollywood product. the 1970s erupted with black men visually reincarnating white men's nightmares. From Shaft (Gordon Parks." Ed Guerrero situates these films' hard edges against the then-proliferating Sidney Poitieresque construction of black masculinity and assimilation. 1972). These action-adventurenarrativesrevolvedprimarilyaroundmacho men who protected (and exploited) their communities. the legitimate anger of black women-dually oppressed (within and without) through race and gender-was often belittled and ignored in all this cultural production.85. angry. CleopatraJones (Jack Starrett. Mad. "The realities of 'white flight' from increasinglyvolatile cities altered the profile of moviegoersaccessible to the owners of theaterslocated in manydowntowndistricts. 1973). the term blaxploitation had come under attack in black communities as "whitecontrol and commercializationof the ghetto imagery. Ironically (or typically). Foxy Brown (Hill. and Violent: Blaxploitation Films. 1973)..13 Most of these blaxploitationfilms characterizedall African descendants as monolithic balls of anger. though the bulk of the films were now written and directed by whites. CinemaJournal 42. Thirtyyears after the gangster film boom."'4Moreover. MarkWinokurargues that in black organized-crime families concerns of the extended family take precedence over those of the nuclear unit. a new distortedview of ghetto life and blackwomen emerged. and its sequel. each featured angry black women. Coffy (JackHill. the kinship pattern among blacks is organized around women rather than men. 1971) to Superfly (Parks. 2. The appearance of these films coincided not only with the black nationalistic and women's movements but also with the box-office successes of their male-centered counterparts.while from the white side of the fence it denigrated the idea of black creative control. urban moviegoers. Black. and vengeful. 1974). Demographic shifts in the population meant that theater owners had to appeal to a growing concentrationof young. Buoyed by the success of MelvinVanPeebles'sindependent Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . No. black.criminal organization today as we have seen it to be historically. frequently became the hero for decaying inner-citycommunities. and women. most of these films were directed and produced by white men. since. By the late 1970s. Winokur even insinuates that women cause the failures of blacks in organized crime because of their "ethnic dynamic" and attention to the "extended family . James Carey suggests that. pride."7 Drawing on Ianni'sfindings."10 Turningto the thendisenfranchisedblack audience. Winter 2003 27 This content downloaded from 222. From the sixty-plusfilms made for this black audience. trapped within urban jungles and forever banished to the margins of society. The "blackstud." personified by Sweetback.127.59 on Thu. blacks emerged as tough. they were still marketed and sold as the original and authentic product of black imaginations..8 Further."9 in portrayed hip-hop gangsta films today. as a form of These assessmentssituatethe representationof the women primitivecommunism.Accordingto S. Hollywood produced a spate of films capitalizing on the racialunrest of the 1960s.

1991) and Hoodlum (Duke. South Central(Steve Anderson. Films like Boyz-n-the-Hood(JohnSingleton. However. and love and success. rapwas unsophisticated. 1991).Q (OmarEpps). is a promising new DJ who struggles to hone his craft while avoiding the pitfalls of black urban life. these elements have altered "hegemonic norms into conventions and methodologies better suited to AfricanAmerican expressivity. 1990s Black Cinema. however. By showing black males who are involved in criminal activity and its consequences. 1995) all revolve around urban inhumanity-black-onblack violence. and gore-which pleased. hip-hop has energized nearly all aspects of American and world visual culture.getting even. drive-by shootings. Both critical and popular writing about the new black cinema focuses on the male maturationprocess and on the connection between blackmen and inner-citycrime. male audiences. expresslyconfined to and defined by a homogeneous black (male) community."'8 ered-as backgroundand often as part of the narrative.85. Club scenes. as Jacquie Jones contends in "The New Ghetto Aesthetic." "unlike music that can be seen as a reformulation of popular music . MenaceII Society (Alanand Albert Hughes. ratherthan For example. hip-hop music.Juice (Ernest Dickerson. black women forge intimate and visible connections to organized crime. . its themes were murder. 1993). In turn.or ratherits sophisticationwas rooted in its deliberate countering of complex orchestral harmonies. rapping. and angry. blood. Cleopatra Jones (TamaraDobson) threatened." whose fiery aggression equaled that of black men. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Though similar. such as Rage in Harlem (Bill Duke. Straightout of Brooklyn(MattyRich. In 1990s hip-hop gangstafilms. 2. 1992). Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. direct.women's roles in 1970s blaxploitationfilms differ from their characterizationsin the 1990s. reflect "primalsites" or spaces that have shaped much of the AfricanAmerican community."'7 In its commodified forms.Instead of pride. Other films."15 a uses karate and scantily clad physique to foil Mommy's (Shelly Winters) drug scheme while still managingliterallyto service the male home front. systematic business but as a sociological/pathologicalproblem. served as an amalgamationof stereotypes: "Theylived in a fantasyworld-of violence.127.59 on Thu. as cinematographerArthurJafa suggests. These two elements. It was crude. and Clockers (Spike Lee. foreground organized crime but reference prior decades. police harassment. The distinctiveness of hip-hop gangsta films lies in their culturally specific depictions of AfricanAmericanwomen and their integration of the contemporary hip-hop dynamic-a force that has completely revolutionized cinematic imagery and sound. No. homeboy rap 28 Cinema Journal 42. . the protagonist. and dance resonateconcurrentlyand perpetuallywithin and outside the diegesis. black women usually stood or fought on the side of the law or justice. and the incessant violence of gang All of the 1990s films cited feature rap music-frequently multilaywarfare. Mike Phillips goes so far as to say that gangster rap has changed the imagery of film: "Unlike the fluent and sophisticated sound of Curtis Mayfield.InJuice. 1991). these films focus on crime not as an organized.16 Because of this positioning. their relationship to organized crime failed to surface.Donald Bogle believes that these "macho goddesses. guns. In the 1970s films. for example. 1997).1992).

In those films that do examine structured crime. New Jack City. CinemaJournal 42. it exists as a modification of sensationalist Hollywood formulae.. however. despite this commodification. fueled by the introduction of crack into the black community. self-consciously or not. relies on the notion that "yougotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era.cinema does not threaten existing conventions. though not always explicitly and visually present. Van Peebles's film received enthusiastic acclaim from critics and attracted an audience at the box office. Dangerous Minds (JohnN. Smith.. New Jack City overturned black filmmakingtraditions with its depictions of "real"inner-city life rocking to a hip-hop beat. His death does not come at the hands of the legal system (alwaysinept in black neighborhoods). that "in the pulp plot and dealing. Introducedas a ground-floorexecutive. language. a self-created drug dealer elevated to the status of CEO. Yet.20Although overt male bonding drives the narrative. and style. New Jack City turns that idea on its head.At a board meeting. location. she even names a new company product. familiarstory. Thus. I turn to New Jack City to support this assertion.the film opens with a soundtrackfeaturing Queen Latifah. though. the mother figure. the infusion of male-dominated hip-hop into the gangster genre provides a space for heretofore-unknown representations of black women. fostered evolutionarymoments in its positioning of African American women in terms of their roles and the depth of informationprovided about the female characters. Sugar Hill. race and gender issues rarely converge. but of a community member-someone whose frustrationwith the ineffectiveness of the police and the judicial process causes him to take matters into his own hands. 2. 1997). But the buildup that leads to the action sequences is never realized. Winter 2003 29 This content downloaded from 222.. matriarchalspirit who haunts and directs both the men and the women."23 Despite the criticism. however. African American cultural specificities disrupt the generic white male conventions that permeate gangster films. New Jack City. Even the stereotypicalrole of the mother is expanded.22Its tale of rags to illegal riches resounded as an old. His success. Instead. and Set It Off offer multiple examplesof blackwomen'sworkand roles. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .85.127. progressive roles for and images of African Americanwomen emerge. No. 1994). Further.rap artistsupreme-thus thrustingwomen into a central space. VanPeebles has all the makeup of a stylish action/exploitationfilm. Nino dies in the end. these same exploitation tendencies can be seen outside "homeboy cinema" in such films as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone. New Jack City. These films co-opt a ghetto aesthetic and display it across the bodies and screens of middle-class whites via music. Most "boyz-n-the-hood"movies situate black women as bitches and "hoes" while foregrounding the inhumanity of blacks and crime. George Pelecanos argues.In the traditionalfilm world of gangsters. Keisha(Vanessa Williams)acts as Nino's co-chief of security."19 The 1990s films mentioned previously seem to support her argument."21 Typical of the gangster genre. Wesley Snipes plays Nino Brown. As shall be shown shortlyin Sugar Hill. In 1991.59 on Thu. surfaces as an ominous. 1995). andJackieBrown (Quentin Tarantino. Very few of these films distinguish organized crime from poverty-induced greed.

24 At the same planning session. waiting to kill again. Keisha defends her employer by firing an uzi. Althoughshe allies herself with the number-twoman. Contrary to images on the Jerry Springer TV show.the neighborhood drug lord. Nino decides to seize control of an apartment complex for the organization'sheadquarters."Uniqua (TracyCamilla Johns) fulfills the latter role. macho style that causes JacquieJones to label her a psychopath.Audiencescan understandthe women'sensuingverbalexchange."But despite her obvious logicalparticipation her tote-wielding."Rocka-bye. In slow motion. needs a son." Jones questions whether this behavior represents progress. Thus. she exclaims that "a man like you." The visual confirmation of her statement occurs in the next scene. the bond to organizedcrime is reinscribedwith a tribute to BrianDePalma'sremakeof Scarface (1983). G-Money. He also voices the need to get rid of Smitty. Nino. No. she works on the front line and plays a crucial role in implementing all security systems.26 Uniqua answers the phone (a no-no in any man's home that is not one's own). "'One bitch' elevated to the status of psychopathic murderer hardly seems an achievement. women historicallydo not function in such a critical capacity in organized-crime families.while a feminine nondiegeticvoice-over ominouslyrepeats Keisha'searlierphrase.. though. however. it look like cracked-off pieces of in the company'soperations. New Jack City is filled with well-worn cinema stereotypes: the tragic mulatto and the "hoe. In physically defending Nino. however."25 She argues further that although feminized.127. But in spite of the status Jones claims for her. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. Keisha exists on the outside of the frame. Though standardgeneric fare. Referencing Ianni again. baby. Keisha agrees by saying. A legacy. pitting her against another black woman presents an interesting dilemma. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .. Uniqua knows what she wants and does not concern herself with coming between friends (Nino and G-Money) or stepping on the toes of other women. it seems that cultural specificity reigns. Nevertheless.85. and tries to physicallydefend him 30 Cinema Journal 42. gives Nino refuge. her white pants suit becomes peppered with blood.validatesthis stereotype with the performance of Johns. In the presence of all. Like men in similar circumstances. While GMoney (Allen Payne) explainsto Smitty that his community services are no longer needed. 2. "People goin' crazy over this? I mean . VanPeebles." as she strips down to her red lingerie before a big-screen scene of Montana's (Al Pacino) demise in Scarface. In black organized-crime cross-class cat fights happen infrequently and are ill advised in most black communities.A markto let the world know that he was here. dressed in a cream-colored unitard and black gloves. when the Italian mafia tries to gun down Nino. Keisha. Keisha sits on the governing board of this self-constructed family.although it is only through circulatingmyths that surroundblack women's sexualitythat her charactereven appearsbelievable.59 on Thu. "Rock-a-bye. she dies in the line of duty. Except for Keisha. Near the end of New Jack is soap. She believes that since AfricanAmericanwomen are usuallyrepresented as either bitches or whores. she pursues the power centered with Nino. jumps from the back of her jeep and puts a bullet through his head-splattering his brains acrossthe sidewalkin slow motion. G-Money narratesthe event diegetically.

25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . this tragic mulatto slums with the likes of Nino. Even her barrenness becomes an issue when played against Uniqua's claims to procreative power. In spite of her stereotypical role. Hawkins's role both fulfills and refutes antagonismsdirected towardblack women professionals. Director Mario Van Peebles and actress Michael Michele on the set of New Jack City (1991). Ms. 2. if skewed. Courtesy JerryOhlinger'sMovie Materials Store. Consequently. Knowing this much about any woman in a gangster film already removes it from traditional offerings. Hawkins.Uniquawins out. Although her character. Paradoxically. with her sexualcharmand promisesto bear Nino's child. Yet she attends business meetings too and recommends personnel. this "hoe"occupies a substantial amount of screen time and provides a view. Although African American women receive community encouragement to excel in real-life situations.Figure 1.59 on Thu. from the police. her position in New Jack City reflects contemporary ideology that black women use their so-called new mainstream status to help the white legal system "bringdown" black men. black men often attack them when they do.Most "keptwomen"are denied such visualspace and voice. Educated and upper middle class. forcing Selena to abandon Nino. of black women's relationships-a relationship that finds its counterpart in Selena. Phyllis Yvonne Stickney. Parallelingblack CinemaJournal 42. Winter2003 31 This content downloaded from 222. No.the chief prosecuting attorney is portrayed by another black woman. Scorned. Eventually. Selena aids in Nino'sprosecution by testifyingagainsthim at his trial.127. seeking thrills. Speech accords importance to female characters-another example of the difference between the hip-hop gangstafilm and other gangstermovies. Selena Thomas (Michael Michele) represents the other clich6d female figure in New Jack City-the kept woman with a twist.85. is afforded limited screen time.

as Massara'sgirl does in Little Caesar. and his mother..j z." Sugar Hill. -< an. Although the women in Sugar Hill generally behave in stereotypical gangster fashion. Xt . No. Melissa (Theresa Randall).127. f " i tS. this image-this woman-haunts him. two female characters. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 2. This woman tells her eldest son to tie the syringe tight while she puts the needle into the "big vein. a "sistah's" moans fill the room-reminiscent of the wails of old. Now imaginethis:A sepia-coloredpictureof a dapperAfricanAmerican couple in early Harlem. Courtesy Jerry Ohlinger'sMovie Materials Store. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. literally taking down everything around her. cultural norms. When the woman tries to walk. Her two young sons scream and cry futilely. Cut to a black-and-white scene of a woman shooting up in an extreme close-up.. Theresa Randall and Wesley Snipes in Sugar Hill (Leon Ichaso.59 on Thu. 32 Cinema Journal 42. professionals. the black women in New Jack City function as gangsters.. The narrativeof Sugar Hill reveals Skuggs'sinner dialogue with his mother about his life after her death.." In the background. Ella Skuggs (Khandi Alexander).85. make critical differences in Skuggs'slife. Roemello values education but is trapped by the circumstances of his past and present.. and "kept women. 1993). 1972). a la MichaelCorleone (Al Pacino)in The Godfather(FrancisFord Coppola. she falls into convulsions. In the dreams of Roemello Skuggs (Wesley Snipes). black church-going women. Roemello's girlfriend...Figure 2. Sugar Hill features Snipes again as a drug dealer but with a difference.

Ella'sunseen presence fosters tension and conflict and harkens to Africanideas about the role and presence of ancestors in the lives of the living. Eventually. She and Roemello meet at a club presumably honored by Skuggs'spatronage. condemning his wrongdoing and becoming his conscience. No. death. Women'scommanding insertion into this male-dominated genre makes palatable a film like Set It Off.assertinghis authority. She returns his look and begins rhythmicallyto perform for him. in which "after all. 1989). in which an illusory maternalpresence guides and supports. Dead since Roemello's youth.desire. Only when he gives up the criminallifestyle does his mother fade from his dreams. Ella's role resembles one created in Bahram Beizai's Bashu: The Little Stranger (Iran.In Little Caesar.127. "Massara's change of heart is motivated. by the love of a good woman-a rare commodity in the gangster genre where women invariably are depicted as sexualornaments. From that encounter. Ella. he peers down on her at the bar. through her support and insistence. Winter 2003 33 This content downloaded from well as a condepth Sugar nection to the past. From his glass a club. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Sugar Hill also proffers Third Cinema sensibilities."30 daring.Roemello decides to cease his criminal activity. even the most hard-bitten hoodlum loves his mother.mere emblems of the gangster's This scenario is updated in Sugar Hill.predictablyenough. even the Yetthe link to the spiritworld in most animalisticcriminalis in some wayshuman. adding a little bop to her pose. Set It Off.As Schatzwrites. even before her drug overdose. As it presents an alternative to the conventional gangster genre through its inclusion of black women. African Americans and especially black women fall into this category."27 tress. his life in his handslike a placard.85. although he is wheelchair bound. Melissa is an atypical female character in a gangster film-attesting to. She forces him to choose between an upright way of life or a life filled with fear. the spectator knows that Melissa will refuse to go quietly into the night and accept the confined role of passive girlfriend. in which women completely appropriatethe gangster site. 2. the strength and cultural resonance of black women. Unlike Michael Corleone's Kay (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather. and command of the male gaze. By getting Roemello and having him live.29 ema calls for filmmakingthat reflects the realities of marginalizedand oppressed people. Schatzwould contend that this is part of the naturalorder of the gangsterworld.59 on Thu. As a wannabe acsocioeconomic status. Their initial contact becomes a mental tit-for-tatmating ritual.Ella Skuggs reinscribes the bad black mother. Third Cindisappearing only when her child makes peace with his new status. The other novel female characterin Ichaso'sfilm is the black female phantom."28 African women American Hill adds to the characters. Melissa plans to assert herself into the thick of things or to excavate him from it. Massara'sgirlfriend convinces him to abandon his line of work. and like Massara. and illegality.Following the murder of virtuallyevery male in the film. Presented in flashback.women. RobertWarshowinsists that "thegangsteris the man of the city.carrying CinemaJournal 42. Melissa enters the narrativeas a lost middle-class young black woman. Melissa gets her man. perhaps. with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible In Set It Off.with the city'slanguage and knowledge. she haunts him in his dreams and business. For example.

127. Cleo recognizes the need for firepower. a timid unwed mother who hangs out with her friends. Together the four form a familyof maleidentified (in their work) but women-occupied (in their construction) gangsters.street-wise and savvy. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. Yet they approachtheir activitywith a business acumen. Gary Gray shows the women recuperating from work and assessing their community. speech.however. armed. by extension. and ready. who performs masculinity in her dress. This women's gang forms a community of friendship. And. a butch lesbian. finally. 2. "What's The film introduces Kimberly Elise as Tisean. Following African and African American kinship patterns.59 on Thu. No. director F. in 1970s flip wigs. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . She relishes the streets and the hoodlum culture so frequently glorified in male gangster rap and video imagery. By their second robbery. Frankie acts (and talks) as the Don who lays down the conditions for the rest of the dons as a parody of Nino Rota's Godfather music plays in the background. But while acknowledging feminine proscriptions against violence. he suggests. Conferring and bargaining with Black Sam (Dr." The women show their tenacity in target practice at Black Sam'sin-home firing range.they stormthe bank-confident. They come to this professionthroughdesperationratherthan sustainedcriminality. Early in the film. the collective black underclass)overcome her background. she the fuckin' procedure when you got a gun at your head?!" wonders. the women behave nervouslyduringtheir first robbery. The kinship pattern becomes evident as they meet around a conference table to discuss their need for cooperation and agreement to execute their next heist. or at least that Americapromises. Even Tisean astutelypeeps out a potential problem as she lies on the floor with the other bank patrons. She inhabits male space totally. she obtains the tools necessary to "set it off. Like their cinematic male counterparts.A jazzynondiegetic tune makes the scene appear comical as the ladies. will she (and. infusing the scene with real-life disenfranchised pain. Stony alone lives to record the gang'slegacy and supposedly to achieve the better life toward which they all strived.Not surprisingly. wave their guns. the women 34 CinemaJournal 42.The actressesinsert their own commentary(rewritingthe script). This scene poignantly visualizes the women's inability to affect and deal with the only communitythey know. and perhaps necessary. the women consider each other family."He wants her because she is "so fine.almost no one survivesin the end. Dre). Queen Latifah plays Cleo.usurp this city space and hijackits alleged gendered certainty. The film features four young blackwomen who conduct a series of bank robberies. Fox) is a teller fired for knowing the perpetrators of the bank's robbery. a la organizedcrime. and desire for women. option. Revealing their inexperience and lack of disposition to the profession. the spectator begins to recognize criminalityas a viable.85. Setting up the women's central paradox." Only through planning and vision. The camera slowly zooms out from a medium shot of them drinkingand getting high to above and behind them.Frankie (VivicaA. again following The Godfather. the gangsters take their jobs seriously.31As the women become smaller elements of their concrete neighborhood. While the camera pans around the table. She meets a Harvard-educated banker "brotha" who wants to be her "genie. work.Stony (JadaPinkett Smith) embodies the ethos of the American dream.

1996): Queen Latifah. In fact. Cleo forges through the barricade.. surrounded and alone.: 1:74* Figure 3. when her lover. but she Cinema Journal 42. firing.As the car comes to a slow stop. Ursula (SamanthaMacLachlan). Amid a slow-motion barrage of bullets and police lights. Another poignant example of the use of this masculine aesthetic of power results when Cleo. Winter 2003 35 This content downloaded from 222. The female gangsters in Set It Off (F. especially when it comes to contemporary hiphop gangsta films. The Up against the Wind soundtrack intensifies as the aestheticized violence becomes part of a visual tranquility.Cleo's maleness counters Ursula's femininity. they wear clothes that completely cover their bodies to fend off unwanted attention.She then decides otherwise. smokes a cigarette. Cleo's performance gives the most credence to their masculinized aesthetic. still uncomfortable with their lesbian affection. the gang turns away.C P~~~~~~~~~~~.. Vivica A. lowers her hydraulic-intensified car. are they in the masculine position?"32 The answer may be both yes and no. and prepares to surrender. the women hang. Fox. Cleo calls to Ursula and kisses her while. Courtesy JerryOhlinger's Movie Materials Store. posture and emote the feel of old-world Italy (or at least that of downtown Manhattan). not as enticements to men but as masters of their own space.. She opens her door. Ann Kaplan's question. No.enters their male-oriented. the women position themselves casuallyin a parklot ing hangout. and a crop-top hairdo. she reflects the quintessential female with short skirt.59 on Thu.127.. The bullets win out. 2. And like male gangsters. reassertingE. For example. The scene enunciates the problem of power alwaysbeing equated with maleness.85. Kimberly Elise. and Jada Pinkett Smith. woman-gangster space. Cleo refuses to concede defeat. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . "When women are in the dominant position. As an organized-crimeunit.pumps. Gary Gray.

Despite being a paranoid drug user. times more likely to be imprisoned than white women. she goes down fighting. This connection to African diasporic cultural dynamics.conventional. Conclusion: Twenty-First Century Gangsters. as in New Jack City. Wells from Child Protective Services. the women's boss refers to them all as bitches. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. Betty runs an art gallery. Ella Joyce plays the sidekick police officer. females whose characterizations Protagonist Betty (VictoriaDillard) portraysa sophisticated money launderer. and Tisean faces hardship and condemnation for being a single mother. like a man. These government additions to the world of the gangster both solidify and reinscribe the positioning of AfricanAmericanwomen as crucial to the gangster world. unlike their male counterparts. For example."34 36 Cinema Journal 42.But while Betty'ssuaveness keeps the business operatingsmoothly.these women work at legal jobs.she recognizes her actual minor role in the overall business and the fragilityof her position. the largest growing group of prison enrollees is black women. Nevertheless. black women "filljails and prisons in greater percentages than black men and are seven For some black women. reminiscent of Pacino'sfinale in Scarface. Like her masculine counterpartsand Keisha in New Jack City. Furthermore.In cahoots with well-placed white attorney David (Jeff Goldblum). The contemporaryinclusionof AfricanAmerican women in male-inflected. Crime thriller Deep Cover (Bill Duke.127. Furthermore. Director Bill Duke seems to belittle her position by juxtaposingher with a black female prostitute. and the total narrative framework of the hip-hop gangsta film. In the twenty-firstcentury. Wells intervenes when Tisean's son poisons himself at the workplace. Also. in Set It Off. she falls for black undercover police officer John (Laurence Fishburne). and actualities deserves recognition-even if it is and genre codes. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has built a ten-year numbers business.while Anna Marie HorsfordportraysMs. Stony must trade her body to raise cash for her brother'scollege tuition. Bill Duke takes the prominence of black women to its logical conclusion: a woman totally runs things. the outside world.andworn characterizations Although small.59 on Thu.which acts as a cover for the money-laundering business. they have not escaped the bias associated with being gendered female. 2. surroundedby formulaic. and she personallyhandles most of the financialtransactions. says Earl Ofari Hutchinson. for better or worse. solo. 1992) presents three are similarto those of the women in New Jack City. the blackwomen in Set If Off face the irony of representing the law and judicial system. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . but her centralityto all the proceedings is maintainedthroughout. aesthetics.33 In Hoodlum (1997). violent genres is not confined to the hip-hop gangsta film. Although black women thrive in the current filmic gangster business and in assumed masculine roles. she builds the business and "mans" it successfully for an extended period. she ultimately yields her power to up-and-coming gangster Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).dies with one hand in a fist and a gun in the other. But although Queen Stephanie St.85. No. based on an actual 1930s event. the roles for black women in these films illustrate their ability to both commandeer (white) male space and display their centrality to black life. who just happens to be female and black.

Even RussellWong's credit precedes the credits for the women. the streets provide the clearest avenue for sustained survivalin the face of layoffs. thus. Cicely Tyson plays Queen Stephanie St. 1997). When black women are New Jack City. the screen of the directors' vision. equally unjustifiably. the media relegate black women. the power they are given often becomes minutely or overtlysabotaged. Winter 2003 37 This content downloaded from 222. and perpetual poverty. "Sincewomen are generallyexcluded from aggressivegroupslike armiesand gangs (thoughthey maybe nearbyin the roles of whores or camp followers). which is based on an actual 1930s story.Figure 4. althoughhe has only six lines in the film. Courtesy Jerry Ohlinger's Movie MaterialsStore. CinemaJournal 42. No.While often unjustly accusing and condemning black men.For example.Increasedappearancesby blackwomen reside less in the directors'feminist impulses than in their appropriation of culturalnorms that permeate the collective psyche and.AfricanAmerican women embody the suspicions that black communities harborabout the police. often againstthe intentions of their mostlymale directors.59 on Thu.127. unemployment. Clair in Hoodlum (Bill Duke. they most often are there to serve men. the names of the actresses appearat the tail end of the credits."35 Even when women are a part of the crime business. discrimination. Yet Hollywood (and the television news) still squarely focus on the black male as the cause of crime in general and in African American communities in particular. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Says Clarens. 2. This subtly but poignantlyreinforces the fact that even though women have more visible roles in hip-hop gangstafilms-and in gangsterfilms in general-these films still target males and remain male-centered and the kitchen and the bedroom.the strengthof the male bond suppliesthe real romanticismof warand gangsterfilms. Hip-hop gangsta films have altered the cinematic landscape for black women.

and the StudioSystem Filmmaking. (Chicago: University 38 Cinema Journal 42.artsreformation. including examples of blackwomen who kill. 6. With the gangster film making room for the hip-hop gangsta genre. I wouldalsoliketo thankVeraDikaforher encouragement the writingof a muchearlierdraftof this essay. present a multiplicity of images of African American women.61. Craig andthe Production Watkins. The gendered and racializedpresence of AfricanAmericanwomen has recast the agenda of gangsterfilms. History(NewYork: hip-hop directors and others continue to replicate Caucasian (classical) cinema."Sightand Sound1. husaffairs. and as substitutes for their fathers. Cauleen Smith. (Philadelphia: TempleUniversity 2.: Prentice-Hall. Tracey Edmonds. no. 1974). Carey.J. an undercover detective who infiltrates the Dalton McKinney plays mobwiththe purposeof bringing it down.html>. 7. thereby reflecting their historic placement in black America. Black women directors and producers. Introduction to Criminology.59 on Thu.1998).133. Carey. 4. as negotiators.And. City. reviewersfor Cinema Shomade. Press. "Eating 1991):12. From the cinematic representationsof Vanessa Williamsheading securityto Cleo'slast 83.Theater.85.36 bands. Hero. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. 7 (November 10. James Introduction to Criminology Cliffs. 9.HollywoodGenres:Formulas. Representing: of BlackCinema HipHopCulture of ChicagoPress. Notes I wouldlike to thankKarlaRae Fuller. In AfricanAmericancommunities. recent studies show that even Italian organized crime has begun including women as media spokespersons.122. and Oprah Winfrey. The Motion Picture ProductionCode of 1930 (Hays Code). CrimeMovies: An Illustrated Norton. Ianni. 8.and the two anonymous Journalfor their criticalcommentsandusefulsuggestions. 2. Zeinabu Irene Davis. Gina Prince-Bythewood. during 1.Kimberly SalmonAdegboyega Wallace-Sanders. 1962). 1978). Doubleday.95. Kasi Lemmons. CarlosClarens. such as Julie Dash. blackwomen have a say in all decision-makingprocesses. the process has alreadybegun. availableat <http:// www. Robert "TheGangster as Tragic in TheImmediate MovWarshow.BlackMafia:EthnicSuccession in Organized Crime(New York: Simonand Schuster. (Englewood 389. J."37 Clearly. One exception to this parody was Leo Popkin's Nina (1938)." Experience: and OtherAspectsof PopularCulture(New York: ies. 5. both at work and at play.starring GangSmashers Mae McKinney. hip-hop's "representationsof black women stand in for authentic blackness. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 408-9. 1981). this blatant sexism is being challenged. No. S.127. and brothers in the management of "family" Perhaps as Davarian Baldwin argues. Mark Is Wrong: Children Mob MoviesfromScarface to NewJack Winokur.blackwomen are masteringthe range of positions held by white male ethnics. ThomasSchatz.1980). Comics. FrancisA. interestingly. cultural principles may force them to look both to African Americantraditionsand to spaces where blackwomen challenge masculinized and white seats of power. Debbie Allen.N.

Mulattoes. participates in business matters. see Thomas Cripps. No. Arthur Jafa. As a result. (Metuchen. Blacks in Black and White:A Sourcebookon Black Films. He lived in a white world as the "good boy" and helped the white man with his problems. N.85. Donald Bogle. Reid discusses the history of African Americans and gangster film in Reid. see Laura Baker. Ibid. Winter 2003 39 This content downloaded from 222." 26. ed. "The New Ghetto Aesthetic. 20. 3 (1991): 49-50." 34. CraigWatkins. Toms. 3-4 (1991): 33. Marilyn Yaquinto. As an actress. Johns represents an ongoing impasse in film. 172. Ibid.127. 22. however.and Bucks:An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York:Continuum. 2. 3rd ed. It grossed $43. For more on this legacy. 25. and Guerrero." Wide Angle 13. In an early 1990s television interview. Variety reported that New Jack City was the most cost-effective film released during 1991. In her only other major role. "The Black Gangster Film. 1995). 1995).J. 23. who says. 28. 13. 15. Highlighting 1970s films is not to deny a historical legacy of black crime films by black artists.6 million in eleven weeks from domestic theatrical rentals alone. 93. 18. 19. George Pelecanos. Sampson. 1993). Mark A. review of New Jack City. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 24." in Barry Keith Grant. In his book Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film (New York:Oxford University Press. Film Genre Reader II (Austin:University of TexasPress. Jacquie Jones. no. 87. 16. 14. Guerrero quotes Clifford Mason.For an in-depth look at black gangster cinema and exhibition." Artforum 31. she plays the sexuallyindependent and promiscuous Nola Darling. many theaters refused to book the films or increased their security (read surveillance) accordingly. Hollywood Genres. but they were reported in disproportionto the actual incidents. the actress claims that she does not want to be typecast. "Chic and Beyond. Cinema Journal 42. 26. 17. Jones." Velvet Light Trap 44 (fall 1999): 4-19.. Although some feminists hailed the role as a liberation of women's sexuality. 1993). "Poitierwill forever be condemned on the screen to reassuringwhite people of their innocence and superiority. Videocassette box. Ferro represents the "strong silent" type who analyzes situations.'good nigger that he is"' (73).11. Schatz. no.violence equaled realness in the minds of theater owners and residents of their surroundingcommunities. Unfortunately. 1994). nos.Representing. Watkins.Johns is characterized as a tramp who is unable to speak for herself. 27. and Henry T.Representing.: Scarecrow Press. "Like Rashomon but Different: The New Black Cinema. see S. 21." Sight and Sound 6 (August 1996): 26. "Screening Race: Responses to Theater Violence at New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood. 456-73. Framing Blackness. New Jack City.Coons. Mammies. and threatens to kill if necessary.Pump 'em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film (New York:Twayne. For more on the exploitation era in black film. "Chic and Beyond. in Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986). Cineaste 28. Phillips. 1998). With the openings of both New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood. some skirmishes occurred. 251.. Mike Phillips. Poitier possessed no wife and no sweetheart. 12. 10 (summer 1993): 11.59 on Thu. "The New Ghetto Aesthetic. One exception is Talya Ferro's role as a member of Biggie Smalls's(Calvin Lockhart) gang in Sidney Poitier'scomedy Let's Do It Again (1975). Ed Guerrero maintains that in films of the period.

com/news/ feature/2001/01/12/black_women>. She performs not only femininity in her display for men. No.Mafia. Earl Ofari Hutchinson. this taste is elucidated. 37. his deceased mother'sspirit follows him. Warshow. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh. 25 Apr 2013 12:48:45 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .Their confluence reinforcesthe notion of blackwoman as concubine and sexuallypromiscuous. Clarens. 28."Salon [online magazine]. Interestingly."Stealing Booty. power."in Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York:Methuen. this sleight of hand shows that progressiveness comes in moderation. 1996. and seats of power. they had a free hand when it came to dialogue. A brief encounter between Betty and the prostitute Jacqueline (Paunita Nichols) illustrates this point."Entertainment Weekly. Winter 2003 This content downloaded from 222. and Waysof her aggressive advances. Cuban. Crime Movies. November 15. Davarian L. informs this African American community. 34. Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson) is a shake dancer/pimp whose lesbian power and prowess coerces and dominates spaces traditionallyheld by men. According to an interview conducted with the actresses of Set It Off. The measured positioning of the two women side by side illuminatestheir similarities.85. no.availableat <http://www. 2. 30. "Is the Gaze Male?. Leon Ichaso'sown cultural background. He needs black women as part of the excess. 38-40. 40 Cinema Journal 42. Baldwin."Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia 39. Her positioning as both masculine and feminine speaks to the contradictoryand conflicting ways that the presence of blackwomen is negotiated across gender. Thus. 64. "Hardest Hit by the Prison Craze: Oklahoma Executes Black Woman Wanda Jean Allen at a Time When Black Women Have Become the New Menace to Society. White Desires: The Spatial Politics of Identity in the Age of Hip Hop. As he grows. 36. race. 35. E. 32. John meets David at Jacqueline'sapartment. David wants to have his cake and eat it too. and control of women. "Black Empires.29. Although "happily" marriedto a blond woman with a daughter. Ann Kaplan. The Little Stranger examines how a young southern Iranianboy learns to deal with the Iran of the north." 131. David rants about his love for sexualencounters with blackwomen. 1983). 33." Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 2. the icing. 4 (December 1998): 477-512. AlessandraDino.59 on Thu. the two men depart. When Duke juxtaposes Jacqueline with Betty in the next scene. but masculinity."The Gangster as Tragic Hero. "Women. no.127. This spiritual action helps him adapt to his new life and family. 31. 2 (summer 1999): 140. After much postcoital play between David and Jacqueline. Ice Cube's Players' Club (1998) inverts within the confines of a particularly male voyeuristicspacemisogynyand manipulation the dance/shake club.

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